Budget deficits have been a hot topic at Portland City Hall lately. But they took a backseat this morning, as Portland City Council elected to, in effect, create a $3.5 million hole in its next budget by committing to pooling its resources for combatting homelessness with Multnomah County.
In an expected unanimous vote, the five-member council voted to create a Joint Office on Homelessness headquartered at that county. The county's Board of Commissioners will vote on the effort tomorrow.
The $47 million office has an ambitious goal of slashing homelessness by at least half in coming years, via an increase in emergency shelter and housing placements, and assistance that keeps people from becoming homeless in the first place.
The move is a continuation of a commitment the city and county made last year, when Mayor Charlie Hales called for a housing "state of emergency" in the region, and promised to pour $20 million in new funding to help stanch the bleeding. Under the agreement, Portland will send existing contracts for homelessness services to the county, along with four employees who'd worked at the Portland Housing Bureau.
The city has long controlled homeless services for single adults and couples, while the county has tackled services for juveniles, domestic violence victims, and families. Officials say that combining those efforts will make for more efficient services, and eliminate confusion for people who need help.
Under the agreement, the city and county are also committing to put at least $15 million a year into the effort for the next five years—with that amount slated to rise by two percent every year. If one of the governments fails to put the money up, the other has the option of dissolving the joint office.
As we noted in this week's paper, the $15 million is roughly $3.5 million more than the city has identified as ongoing funding for the effort, meaning it'll need to find the money in coming budgets. Those types of unfunded mandates have been unpopular among council members of late, but it didn't raise enough alarm to jeopardize the deal this morning.
"If the city is having to cut our budget and this isn’t having to be cut at all, that’s going to have a huge impact," said Commissioner Amanda Fritz. Commissioner Steve Novick also raised it as an issue.
County Chair Deborah Kafoury, testifying in favor of the deal, downplayed the concerns, calling the $15 million commitment the "absolute bare minimum" of what she expects the governments to contribute. The two governments are paying a combined $47 million into the office this year.
"Ending homelessness…is the number one priority of the citizens we serve," Kafoury said. "We’re going to have to do it again next year. That’s the reality. I'm going to be talking about the $47 million we put in this year, and adding to that next year."
That's in step with what Kafoury's been saying for months. She told the Mercury last year she'd push for a continued increased funding stream that can help meaningfully cut into the homelessness crisis.
The new agreement, all but guaranteed to be formally enshrined by the county commission tomorrow morning, doesn't answer a few pressing questions about how the city's been fighting homelessness. It doesn't contain a provision for funding operations for the homeless rest area Right 2 Dream Too, for instance. And it doesn't offer up a home for the suite of new services Mayor Charlie Hales has lodged in the city's Office of Management and Finance in the last six months or so.
"It has to be addressed," said Hales. "I suspect that neither I nor the mayor elect [Ted Wheeler] think that the functions that are now being performed in the mayors office by the mayor should stay there. We’ve done that because they needed to be done and we needed to step up."