Multnomah County Board Approves New Plan for Homeless Agency

Old battle lines over homelessness made for a long meeting and at least one “hangry” commissioner.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson. (Nathaniel Perales)

After a five-hour debate that pitted longtime foes against one another, Multnomah County commissioners approved a new intergovernmental agreement for running the Joint Office of Homeless Services.

If blessed by the city, which will take it up next, the new pact would govern how the city and county work together to spend local, state and federal money on homelessness, a problem that has only grown since the Joint Office was set up in 2016. Negotiators for the county and the city have been working on the plan for more than a year.

The debate over approval divided along familiar lines, with Commissioner Sharon Meieran raising questions and amendments and County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson trying to get the five-member board to yes in a limited amount of time. Because of upcoming absences, the board won’t have a quorum again until July 23. The Joint Office agreement must be in place by July 1.

“When I started this role as Multhomah County chair in January 2023, getting to this day didn’t look all that possible,” Vega Pederson said before debate on the plan began. “The relationship between the city and the county was at some of the lowest points that I think it had ever been, and there was real lack of faith in our ability to work together.”

Passing the intergovernmental agreement today is a victory, Vega Pederson said, because it’s necessary for governing the Homeless Response Action Plan that her office negotiated with the city. “HRAP” aims to shelter 2,699 of the 5,398 people living outside in Multnomah County, create 1,000 new shelter beds, increase exits from shelters into permanent housing by 15% by Dec. 31, 2025, and ensure that 75% of people housed in permanent supportive housing stay there for 24 months. Special emphasis on all goals is given to people of color, adults over 55, and LGBTQIA2S+ people.

The budget for the Joint Office is $395 million for next year, up from $40 million when it was conceived in 2016. Negotiations between the county and city have been delicate, in part because city officials are skeptical that the office, jointly funded but controlled by Vega Pederson, is functional.

“If you’re worried about where people who are homeless in our community are going to sleep tonight, this is our way forward,” Vega Pederson said. “If you feel that Multnomah County and the city of Portland should be more collaborative in our approach to this work, removing silos, establishing universal baselines, and creating the data we need to truly track people who interact with our systems, this is our way forward.”

Meieran, who is in the final months of her eight-year tenure on the board, was scathing in her criticism of the plan and the process that led to its passage. Long a gadfly, Meieran has amped up her criticism recently. The proposed plan for the Joint Office doesn’t rely on data and doesn’t create enough accountability, she said. And it was rushed, she added.

“This is Operation Ramrod,” Meieran said.

Specifically, Meieran questioned how the city and county came up with their goal of creating 1,000 new shelter beds and getting 2,699 people off the street. Those numbers appeared arbitrary, Meieran said. She questioned how the chair’s office, which led negotiations with the city, could formulate a plan without knowing exactly how many people were living outside, how many new ones arrived each month, and how many of those were being discharged from hospitals to the street.

Meieran sought changes to planks in the agreement, including one that asserted that the homelessness crisis was “primarily caused by a severe shortage of affordable housing.” Meieran sought to list more causes, chief among them mental health.

“Making ridiculously oversimplified comments like ‘the main problem with homelessness is not having enough housing’ ignores the reality of what it will actually take to get us out of the mess we’re in,” Meieran said.

The proposed change kicked off a long debate that involved amendments to amendments and a call to return to Robert’s Rules of Order, which allow for tabling amendments, something the county prohibits.

”We’re not acting in a manner that a jurisdiction of our size should,” Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards said.

Commissioner Lori Stegmann protested the last-minute changes. “We are in the ninth hour,” Stegmann said, adding that she was “hangry.”

In the end, the plank was changed to include behavioral health as a cause of homelessness.

That didn’t appease Meieran, who used her closing remarks to lambaste the county and the city.

“This isn’t an IGA,” Meieran said. “It’s a CYA. It’s like a used car salesman slapping a coat of paint on a car that won’t run and trying to sell it as new. A new paint job won’t help this vehicle run. We need a mechanic.”

“I can only vote no,” Meieran said. “But while the county celebrates with a press release, I call on city councilors—most of whom want to be mayor—to recognize the glaring lack of ‘county-bility.’ No serious contender for leadership of this city can endorse this sham. The county is committed to projecting bigger lies, not changing lives. The city must put an end to the charade.”

In the end, the intergovernmental agreement passed 4-1.

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