In an unusual request out of step the city's normal budget process this morning, the bureau said that that money—along with another $2 million for other efforts—are necessary as Portland struggles to fight its homeless crisis amid rising rents and ongoing no-cause evictions.
The $30,000 request for bus tickets is the first we've heard of the proposal. It didn't show up in documents posted last week, detailing the funding requests from the housing bureau. Instead, it was introduced as an amendment in council chambers.
Sally Erickson, who leads the housing bureau's efforts against homelessness, told Portland City Council that the money is "for homeless people who are stranded here."
"They need assistance getting back to a place where there is a support system," Erickson said. "Where there's a place where they might be able to stay permanently. Its something that we’re looking to start up."
Details on the effort were scarce at the hearing (we've reached out to the housing bureau with questions), but Erickson specifically compared the effort to San Francisco's Homeward Bound program, in which the city awards bus tickets to homeless people if they can prove they have a place to stay, they remain sober during travel, and are "medically stable enough to travel unassisted to the destination." (The program's not always followed those rules.)
"This isn’t just handing out a bus ticket at all," Erickson said.
Though new, the $30,000 request was a tiny fraction of the $2.75 million the housing bureau and Office of Management and Finance (OMF) requested this morning to help bolster their efforts fighting homelessness. As we noted in this week's paper, the OMF—which manages Portland's business affairs—has had an outsized role managing new efforts since the city declared a housing emergency. In many cases, it's taken on projects that would typically be handled by the housing bureau.
That was laid bare this morning, when an amendment to the OMF's share of the $2.75 million request increased by nearly three fold. City council approved $686,522 to reimburse the bureau for management of two organized campsites, maintenance on two new temporary homeless shelters, and a broker who's scouting for new shelter sites.
The OMF's newfound role is causing concern among some officials—notably Commissioner Nick Fish, who used to oversee housing.
"I continue to believe that the housing bureau should be leading this effort," he said this morning. "We should be consolidating and streamlining and aligning" services.
The housing bureau got the larger chunk of change today, though, and much of that was to bolster rent assistance agencies offer to people at risk of becoming homeless. As Marc Jolin, director of the A Home For Everyone Coalition, told City Council, that money's drying up far quicker as rents rise.
Jolin spoke of thousands of people each month pushed to the brink of homelessness by the city's rental crisis. "If we want to stem the in-flow of people onto our streets… we desperately need additional rent assistance dollars."
In the end he got them. A unanimous city council vote—Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman was absent—approved the $2.75 million. It also potentially set up expectations for next year's budget, which council is just beginning to consider.
Requests like this morning's—asks for general fund money that occur outside of the typical budget process— have been sort of controversial in the past. When City Council recently decided to put taxes collected from Airbnb and similar services toward housing, Commissioner Amanda Fritz bristled at the move, arguing it should be done within the city's budget process. But Fritz presented no such concerns today.