6144 SE Foster, site of a new homeless shelter coming this autumn.
6144 SE Foster, site of a new homeless shelter coming this autumn. Google

Even in a city that's basically a Thunderdome of homeowners battling any change that approaches their neighborhood, today's meeting of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners was bruising.

In a 4-1 vote, the board approved a 10-year lease for a long-term homeless shelter at 6144 SE Foster. As envisioned by the county's Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS), the shelter will house between 100 and 120 people who'll get beds at the center via referral (and so won't be lining up outside, officials say). The shelter's currently slated to open this fall, and would focus on women, people with disabilities, people over 55, and veterans. Before doors open, the sales pitch goes, the county will develop a stakeholder committee to address neighbors' concerns.

The board's approval came as JOHS urged swift action on the lease, saying that the former grocery store wouldn't be available for long. But it didn't come without notable strife between County Commissioner Loretta Smith and other board members and county officials.

Smith got applause from the shelter skeptics filling the chamber when she lit into JOHS Director Marc Jolin early on in the hearing, questioning why the lease was being signed roughly a month after the possibility of a shelter was made public.

"You had these conversations in August and you made a conscious decision not to [address the community until December]," she told Jolin. "You have to make sure that people feel comfortable before you tell them, 'We’re going to put this in your neighborhood.'"

Smith called the public process "disingenuous" and said the suggestion that officials spend $2 million to renovate the leased space was "unconscionable."

She wasn't remotely done. Over the course of the hearing, Smith would question whether the county was rushing the process to avoid an impending zoning change on the property that would affect how many people could sleep there (Jolin acknowledged it was a factor), and railed against an assistant county attorney whom she suggested had purposefully been vague about the true cost of the deal. Further, she suggested that Commissioner Sharon Meieran hadn't bothered to read the terms of the proposed lease, and more generally intimated that the rest of the board wasn't fulfilling its duties under the county charter.

"Read the charter," said Smith, who currently is named in a lawsuit accusing her of running afoul of the charter. "We’re responsible for the money piece. Because of our values individually we all do care about homelessness and people being on the streets, but our first job is the money."

Smith's concerns over cash were partly to do with the fact that the county plans to spend money (along with the city) to fix up a building it doesn't own, but also hinged on taxes. Since any building the county occupies is not subject to property taxes, Smith was concerned that tax abatement would result in a windfall for the property owner, who is already reaping between $13,390 and $16,322 per month from the county over the course of the lease [PDF]. Assessor's records show the owners of the building paid $27,517 in property taxes last year (not all of that would be exempt, since part of the building is occupied by a 7-Eleven).

Smith hectored Assistant County Attorney Jed Tomkins on how much the building owner would save over the course of the lease. When he couldn't answer, she requested a vote be pushed back two weeks. No other commissioner seconded her motion. (For what it's worth, the lease passed by the board today suggests that the tax savings to the property owner figured into the monthly rent, saying: "The total compensation paid by Tenant under this Lease has been established to reflect the savings of below market rent resulting from the exemption from taxation.")

That's not to say the rest of the board wholly disagreed with Smith.

"From what I’ve heard I do feel like the process here is not what it should have been," Meieran said at one point. "When we come down to making some of the really difficult decisions, it’s a matter of, sometimes, triage."

Smith has been a critic of the county's strategies around homelessness in the past. In 2016, she railed against the decision to house 200 people in a rundown county building at 122nd and Glisan. And she still resents the fact that County Chair Deborah Kafoury refused to create a shelter in the county's unused Wapato jail facility (now sold).

As to the rest of the hearing: If you've tracked literally any other conversation about a new homeless shelter in Portland recently, you already know the arguments Foster-Powell and Mt. Scott-Arleta residents and others voiced.

Over hours of testimony today, opponents said the shelter was at too prominent an intersection, too near a school, and too far from services. They said the building where the shelter is proposed doesn't have an adequate HVAC system. They talked about the drug use that would choke their alleys. They demanded the lease be pushed back so they could prove the building was less than ideal for a shelter.

Others strongly supported the shelter—including residents of the neighborhood who said they'd move the shelter closer to their own homes if they could.

Lost in the arguments, for the most part: Every building is less than ideal for a shelter, and it's really hard to find properties that even sort of work. As Jolin noted this morning, the county needs to find sites in "the right geographic areas," and buildings that meet zoning requirements, are near transit, have reasonable costs, and are vacant.

"It is truly a challenging process," he said. "The Foster site has emerged from this process as a good option for a year-round permanent shelter."