THE CITY COUNCIL chambers were just about empty Wednesday afternoon, November 10—utterly so if you didn't count the five commissioners, the handful of advocates who came to speak, and the one journalist actually watching the proceedings in person.
It was amid that lonely backdrop that commissioners unanimously approved one of the day's most important pieces of business: a spending plan for some $1 million in city grants meant to lift scores of homeless Portlanders off the streets and into shelters and permanent homes.
The one-time money will target so-called "bottlenecks" in a bureaucracy that has struggled to keep pace with Portland's growing homeless population. Agencies including Central City Concern, JOIN, and Janus Youth Program plan to provide services like rent assistance and job training, while also speeding along housing placements and clearing space in shelters.
The council also approved nearly $400,000, in a separate funding package, for a pair of cold weather shelters opening this month. One will serve women, at the YWCA over on SW 10th. The other one will serve men, over at the Salvation Army at NW Second and Burnside.
"I'm optimistic we're going to make a dent in this problem," said Housing Commissioner Nick Fish.
But just as significant, advocates say, was how the framework for spending the grant money came together—and whether it signals a new détente in Portland's often contentious debate over homelessness issues.
In a slightly jarring sight at council last week, representatives from Travel Portland, the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), and the police bureau were seated cheek-to-jowl with more traditional homeless service providers. Invited by Fish's office, they had been a key voice in shaping the plan.
“We talk to the city all the time about homelessness issues,” says Megan Doern, the PBA’s spokeswoman. “We have a strong relationship with a lot of service providers in the city.”
The PBA, of course, is widely known for its vociferous support of the city's infamous sit-lie ordinance—a much-loathed law that finally died last year after a court declared it unconstitutional. (A less-restrictive version of the law, but no less controversial, has since been substituted.)
But earlier this year, the PBA helped bankroll a daytime storage facility for some of downtown's homeless residents. That announcement came amid the discussions over how to spend the $1 million.
"This is the first time we've been a part of anything that had this particular group of partners in it and was this focused," says Marc Jolin, JOIN's executive director. "It probably is something that can be built on."
Margaret Van Vliet, director of the Portland Housing Bureau, however, ruled out using the word “probably.” Instead, given the difficult economy, “this is the partnership we have to have going forward.”
Van Vliet says it makes sense for other groups to join the wider conversation on homelessness—mostly because they’re already talking to city officials about the subject anyway. Talking directly with providers offers a chance for education, she says.“The people who do this day in and day out can explain how things actually work to the business community, in a way where they can say, ‘Okay, this actually makes good sense.’”
Still, not all advocates are as charitable. Brendan Phillips, a community organizer at Sisters of the Road, which clashed with the PBA on sit-lie, applauded the grant, saying, "We know that people in housing is always better than having them in the streets." But as cheery as the moment might be, he says, job opportunities and long-term affordable housing remain scarce. He also isn't sure the PBA is "singing a new tune or coming further over to our side."
"They're thinking more along the lines of 'I'd like my storefront not to have someone in front of it. And this provides an opportunity,'" Phillips says.