ON MONDAY MORNING, a dull green shipping container that had been sitting dormant for weeks beneath the Steel Bridge opened its doors, and downtown Portland's many homeless residents finally had a new option for securing their stuff during the daytime.
The container was late. We're roughly six months out from October, when Mayor Charlie Hales said Portland would begin offering day storage so homeless people aren't constantly tethered to their belongings. Everyone agrees the service is needed.
But nobody showed up Monday. One woman rolling a shopping cart by the storage container paused only long enough to theorize the program was a setup so police could look through people's things.
"They need to do more outreach, I think," Program Manager Jay McIntyre said of city officials the following morning, as the container sat empty for a second day.
The storage program is part of a barrage of striking new efforts that have emerged under Portland's homelessness and housing emergency. Since that emergency was declared in October, the city's opened two new homeless shelters, taken steps to permit three organized encampments (with another in the works), unveiled a game-changing new policy around camping enforcement, and mulled using city-owned parking garages as night-time sleeping spots.
Equally striking is the city bureau that's at the helm of most of these efforts.
It's not the Portland Housing Bureau, which has traditionally coordinated the city's homeless services, and has a staff dedicated to those issues. Instead, Hales' office has been routing the new services to a far less specialized bureau: the Portland Office of Management and Finance (OMF).
The bureau—which runs the business side of the city's enormous bureaucracy, with a hand in human resources, facilities maintenance, revenue collection, contract procurement, and much more—suddenly finds itself a leading front in the fight against homelessness.
And at a time when the city's working to streamline its homeless services work with Multnomah County, the OMF's emergence has caused some heartburn.
"We've never done this before," says Commissioner Nick Fish, who helmed the Portland Housing Bureau from its inception in 2009 until Hales took it away from him in 2013. "It's a bit of a contradiction that we are on one hand trying to streamline, align, and coordinate services, and at the same time, we've actually in some ways become less coordinated."
The distinction of who handles what Fish calls a "bold and essentially unproven plan to address camping and homelessness" is in some ways a case of inside baseball. As Josh Alpert, Hales' chief of staff and the passionate architect of many of the new homeless efforts, told the Mercury: "I'd like to ask Portlanders: Do they care? It's just expedience."
But it's more than that, too. The OMF's increasing use reflects ongoing disagreements in city hall about how Portland should handle the emergency at hand. Commissioner Dan Saltzman has said he doesn't want to manage Right 2 Dream Too—which OMF is working to provide a new home for—or camping in general. And since Saltzman controls the housing bureau, it makes some sense for the mayor's office to do its own thing with one of its own bureaus.
Hales has gone further than that, though. While it's overseen campsite sweeps for years, OMF is now paying for maintenance and operations at a temporary emergency shelter the city opened up in recent months near Multnomah Village, and working to permit two brand-new homeless encampments. Shelter management has long been handled by the housing bureau, which also has oversight of the organized homeless community Dignity Village.
Saltzman wasn't available to talk about this disconnect with the Mercury, but his staff and Alpert both insist that the housing bureau still has vital input in all of these new programs. To some with long experience at Portland City Hall, though, the change has been notable.
"That Charlie is using OMF to manage those contracts suggests to me that he has some concern with the management of the housing bureau's ability to effectively negotiate and/or manage those contracts," says former Commissioner Randy Leonard, who left public office in 2012 after a decade on the council (and, it should be noted, was never overly friendly with Saltzman).
"It does suggest that some problems/tensions exist between the mayor's office and the bureau most qualified to manage contracts related to housing issues for the homeless," Leonard says.
The extent of OMF's increasing activity is perhaps most visible in the city's budget. On Wednesday, Alpert is scheduled to appear before city council to ask commissioners to allocate $2.75 million in unused funds toward bolstering its anti-homelessness efforts. A good portion of the money is headed to the Housing Bureau, but roughly $250,000 is earmarked for OMF, to pay the bureau back for expenditures on the day storage project ($136,129), an organized campsite on North Kerby ($60,340), and other efforts.
And as talks over next year's budget get underway, OMF is requesting nearly $2 million for shelter operations and three employees to manage "homelessness- and camping-related programs." The City Budget Office is currently recommending commissioners shoot down the proposal.
The extracurricular activities by OMF effectively bring a new bureau into the homelessness fight right when officials are planning to streamline the system. Last month, Saltzman and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury unveiled a plan to consolidate homeless services provided by the city and county under a single office, overseen by Kafoury. Officials speak optimistically about getting the effort underway by July.
If that happens, it's the latest step in a series of moves aimed at simplifying the region's strategy to fight homelessness. Most recently, officials founded A Home for Everyone, a taskforce of government officials and nonprofits that's drawing up plans to cut homelessness by half in coming years.
But it's unclear how any of the OMF efforts fit into that picture. Neither Kafoury nor Alpert can say whether the mayor's new initiatives will be moved to the new office, or remain under OMF.
"I would expect... that whatever OMF is doing that relates to homeless services is going to be something that is then put forward as something for the joint office," says Kafoury, who notes she hasn't "been kept in the loop on every issue."
"This is one of the reasons why we're trying to get this joint office where we have all the staff working together in the same direction," she says. "So we don't have one person doing one thing and another person doing another thing."
Fish—who recently cast a lone vote against relocating Right 2 Dream Too partially because of a lack of housing bureau oversight—says that when he signed onto Portland's housing emergency, his "expectation was we were going to be pooling the talent, coordinating our efforts and running everything through this framework... this is not being led by the housing bureau. It did not come through A Home for Everyone."
Alpert isn't overly concerned with those distinctions—just in trying to get Portland's hectic, controversial homelessness crisis into shape as soon as possible.
"In my mind none of that matters," he says. "Every bureau should be stepping up. The mayor made that very clear when he asked the council to declare a state of emergency."This article has been corrected to reflect that OMF does not manage a service contract at a temporary shelter in Southwest Portland. The bureau does oversee maintenance and improvements at the shelter.