A meeting of a community board that helps guide regional solutions to homelessness underscored concerns last week around a shelter proposal pitched by Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran.
The virtual Wednesday meeting of the A Home For Everyone (AHFE) Coordinating Board—which oversees the collaborative work being done by governments in the Portland metro region to address homelessness—centered on Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury's proposed county budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year. That budget suggests using $52 million in revenue from Metro's homeless services measure (passed by voters in May 2020) to create up to 450 new shelter beds and secure 1,300 housing units for people who are currently unhoused or at risk of losing their home.
This proposal doesn't sit well with Meieran, who has characterized the region's current state of unsanctioned homeless camps as a "humanitarian crisis."
"That is a small number of people," said Meieran, who sits on the AHFE Coordinating Board, during the meeting, referencing the 450 people who'd get a shelter bed. "We need something to address the emergency. We need to focus additional resources on that to address the scale of the need."
Meieran has independently proposed a somewhat vague plan to expand the number of sanctioned shelters in Multnomah County. Her proposal, introduced earlier this week, calls on the county to create a "broad, coordinated network of alternative shelter options and basic hygiene services" to support unhoused residents. She suggests the plan would cover 25 different alternative shelters (a term that encapsulates tiny house villages, heated pod clusters, a parking lot designated for car camping, or other non-traditional shelter ideas) dispersed equitably across five different sections of Multnomah County, and cost no more than $9 million. Meieran said she'd want the new system to create at least 1,000 new shelter beds.
Meieran wants to see the county budget incorporate her plan, but admits that it's not "fully fleshed out."
"This is not some plan etched in stone, it's just my framework to reduce harm in real time," Meieran told the Mercury Friday. She has proposed increasing funding to the Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS), the office that jointly serves as Multnomah County and Portland's homeless services department, to establish and manage these new shelters, but hasn't included JOHS in the plan's proposal process.
Meieran also hasn't presented her proposal to officials in Portland City Hall, including City Commissioner Dan Ryan, whose office oversees JOHS, and Mayor Ted Wheeler.
It's not a new idea for local government: Portland city commissioners, including Ryan and Jo Ann Hardesty, have expressed their support of a broader network of alternative shelters and the JOHS has promised $3 million to support alternative shelter ideas proposals from the public.
But the proposal came as a surprise to others on the AHFE Coordinating Board, who've been closely involved in conversations around alternative shelter.
Marisa Zapata, director of Portland State University's Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative, questioned whose needs were being represented in Meieran's plans, noting that the board needs to be asking unhoused people what they want. During the meeting, Zapata suggested that the plan was backed by the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), as a tool to remove people from camping on city sidewalks near businesses. At this insinuation, Meieran interrupted Zapata with an incredulous "Oh my god!", and then appeared to look surprised that her microphone was unmuted.
(In a call with the Mercury after the meeting, Zapata explained that she had erroneously made that comment because she wrongly believed a speaker on the call who supported Meieran's plan was a representative of the PBA.)
"If we want to do this, we have to start by asking people what would help them and build out from there," Zapata continued, ignoring Meieran's outburst. "The answer might not be tent networks or tiny pod villages, it’s more complicated than that. I think we should give that due diligence as opposed to continuing to just cram things through."
Meieran later explained that the proposal was informed by conversations she's had with houseless people through volunteering work. "I come at this from the position of someone who has done some direct service, who speaks with a lot of people who are houseless and advocates," she said. "Many of these people have raised [the question] to me, 'Why can’t we do something like this?"
Zapata's concerns about a quickly thrown-together option for unhoused residents were echoed by Katrina Holland, the director of homeless service nonprofit JOIN who also sits on the AHFE Coordinating Board. JOIN has helped operate the three emergency outdoor homeless shelters the city created during COVID-19.
"What we've learned is that, for some folks, living in a managed camp situation may fit them because there are certain things in their lives that may make that a good option for them," said Holland, "and then there are those for whom that is not a good decision because they want to maintain their autonomy or there are different concerns."
Holland asked Meieran if her proposal would be marketed to unhoused people as an option or a mandate.
"With this proposal you’re bringing forward, is the hope that this would be an option that folks would chose?" Holland asked. "Or is the hope that... the city would have the ability to tell someone, 'You can camp here, you cannot camp here?'"
It's a common concern in homeless advocacy circles, especially in a city that used to fine people for sitting or sleeping on sidewalks and continues to criminalize unhoused people at a disproportionate rate. The city still regulates where people can legally camp outside, but under a process that threatens to remove a person's possessions—not arrest—if they don't relocate. That system has been generally on pause since April 2020, to align with guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regarding homeless campers' health during COVID.
Meieran said her plan would create "options" for unhoused people, but didn't directly address if people would be required to take the option. In a call with the Mercury after the meeting, Meieran said that she "doesn't believe in criminalizing homelessness, ever."
Meieran does think that, if the county can create a wide variety of alternative shelter options, most people would want to relocate to them.
"We’ve never had a situation where we’ve offered people enough of what they themselves have asked for," said Meieran. "I would expect this to be voluntary, but I also anticipate that this would speak to people’s needs and if we support people, I think that they would go there."
Meieran expressed her frustration Wednesday with the perceived lack of support for her plan by the AHFE Coordinating Board, suggesting that county budget dollars unfairly pit shelter spending against affordable housing spending. She also accused those questioning her proposal of disrespecting her.
"It’s really upsetting to have this happen at the [AHFE] coordinating board," said Meieran, responding to comments made by Zapata and Holland. "We talk about having difficult conversations, we talk inclusion and equity and about respecting people. But what I find is that we don’t have these difficult conversations, because certain voices are silenced or are mocked or disregarded, and it does not feel like a safe space in many ways. And in recognizing that I am privileged that I'm an elected official and that I am white, and for me it doesn’t feel safe. I can imagine that it doesn’t feel safe for other people."
Both Zapata and Holland are women of color. Not long after making this comment, Seraphie Allen, a member of Mayor Ted Wheeler's staff who works on homelessness policies, wrote a comment in the video's chat box asking if the board could have a follow-up discussion about how white board members "enter spaces" and engage with "emotionally-charged conversations."
After the meeting, Zapata told the Mercury she was confused where Meieran's plan originated, and how it fit into other regional homelessness prevention plans.
"My question about any plan is, 'Who does it stand to benefit?'" said Zapata. "It wasn't clear what this plan was in response to, and who it was speaking for."
Meieran will be pitching her case to fellow county commissioners over the next several weeks, and plans to propose the plan as a budget amendment. The five-person board will vote to adopt the budget the first week of June.
If her plan is not picked up in the county budget, Meieran says she will keep advocating for it. She's confident that, with the new influx of Metro dollars for homeless prevention and the thousands of American Rescue Plan Act dollars promised for the county and city, there's no better time to invest in homeless prevention.
"I'm hopeful right now," Meieran said.
Participate or watch the Wednesday, May 12 public hearing on Multnomah County's proposed budget here.