BARRING A DRAMATIC CHANGE, Portland will have a brand-new team tackling its homelessness crisis in less than three months... it'll just be made up of a couple of old teams.
Tuesday morning, commissioners from Multnomah County and the City of Portland met in an exceedingly rare joint session, voicing unanimous support for a plan that was unveiled earlier this year: merging the homeless services provided by the city and county into a single office under County Chair Deborah Kafoury.
There are plenty of good reasons for this move. Portland and Multnomah County offer pretty much identical services for the homeless, but have long focused on different populations. The city's traditionally served single adults, while the county has worked with families, juveniles, and domestic violence survivors.
"We have two different contracting systems, two different offices, and two different data collection systems," City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, head of the Portland Housing Bureau, said at Tuesday's meeting. "This proposal will allow the new joint office to be more efficient, more nimble, and easier to navigate."
Cynics will yawn at the plan, rightly pointing out that the bureaucratic rejiggering doesn't have much bearing on the Portland they interact with every day.
That Portland is cluttered with people in economic and physical distress, who live in tents under our bridges and along our trails. They're there despite the work officials are talking about consolidating. The new "Joint Office of Homeless Services" will break down the silos that are so often bugbears of local governance, but it's no panacea.
And it's worth pointing out that the new office, as laid out for officials Tuesday, also represents only part of what Portland's fast-changing homeless fight looks like these days. The office will still have longstanding players in the fight—a handful of staffers in both the housing bureau and Multnomah's department of county human services—but not some of the newer efforts that Mayor Charlie Hales has tried of late.
As I've reported ["The City Has a New Front in the Fight Against Homelessness," News, March 16], efforts like syringe disposal, day storage sites, and organized homeless camps have landed in a new and novel home: the Portland Office of Management and Finance (OMF). And the OMF is nowhere to be found in the new plan.
It's a point Hales raised at the meeting. He said there are six people, either in his office or OMF, who spend at least half their time working on homelessness issues.
"It is an expedience that the mayor's office and OMF are doing this work," Hales said. "I am proud of it. But it is not necessarily guaranteed to continue. We need to address the question of where that work will be housed starting July 1."
That is a huge question, particularly at a time when the most likely candidates to succeed Hales next year have voiced misgivings about his strategies that take a lenient stance on camping.
No one could answer the question at Tuesday's meeting. Someone will need to soon.
As Kafoury put it: "This is a good start, but we have a long way to go."