Gun casings scattered on the street at a crime scene.
Gun casings scattered on the street at a crime scene. D-Keine / Getty Images

As gun deaths surged this spring, Portland City Council moved quickly to make a significant investment in gun violence prevention programs. The emergency budget package of $6 million did something that past city measures to deter gun violence have not: It didn’t put any funding towards law enforcement.

"This proposal goes beyond just law enforcement to invest in upstream solutions and tackle disparities faced by many of the impacted communities at their roots, and replacing and rebuilding it with a system that supports them," said City Commissioner Carmen Rubio during the April 7 council vote on the funds.

The budget package steered thousands toward contracts with community organizations that already had relationships with groups of people impacted by gun violence—communities of color that have historically been over-policed in Portland. The funds would finance everything from after-school programs for youth, to paid mentorship jobs for people with past lived experience in Portland gangs.

Five months after the April budget vote, with gun violence rates still skyrocketing, the ambitious budget proposal has hit a few roadblocks.

One concern: The majority of the dollars are just now being distributed to community organizations who applied for the funding in April. This slow rollout has frustrated leadership at these organizations, dimming some of their earlier excitement about the city’s commitment to non-police solutions to gun violence.

They’re not the only leaders with reservations about the proposal.

Some in City Hall aren’t convinced that the Office of Violence Prevention (OVP), the department tasked with distributing the funds, should be trusted to do the job. That’s because a few local organizations were approved for the budgeted funds just a month after the vote, appearing to cut in line in front of other qualified organizations that were told to wait. Specifically, OVP greenlit more than $500,000 in dollars to Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center (POIC) and more than $400,000 to a program called Going Home II by mid-May.

City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty believes those dollars were fast-tracked because of OVP staff’s personal relationships with those organizations.

“I want to be clear, I believe we are funding great programs,” said Hardesty. “But I also, as an elected official, have to be accountable for how these dollars are spent, and make sure we’re not just funding our friends.”

Hardesty said that, in the spring, City Council had asked OVP to alert commissioners’ offices about any potential new contracts with organizations before finalizing an agreement. According to her, that never happened.

And, Hardesty said that when she asked OVP how those organizations were funded so quickly, she never received a response—further raising her suspicions. That’s why, in August, Hardesty penned a letter to Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office, suggesting that the administration of gun violence prevention dollars be relocated to the Office of Community Safety, a new department built to streamline policy work between the city’s public safety bureaus.

“These funds were disbursed without any justification, notification, or written or verbal explanation,” wrote Hardesty. “As an elected official I am charged with ethical stewardship of public funds, so I must take steps to prevent this from happening again, especially at the peak of gun violence in the city.”

OVP Director Nike Greene declined to comment on these allegations to the Mercury. In an email to the Mercury from Herico Aiten, a spokesperson for Greene, Aiten wrote that, “Regarding Commissioner Hardesty’s request, we respect everyone’s opinions and thoughts.”

"I, as an elected official, have to be accountable for how these dollars are spent, and make sure we’re not just funding our friends."

Greene offered a more detailed explanation in an email sent to Wheeler’s chief of staff Bobby Lee in June, which was obtained by the Mercury through a public records request. Greene wrote that, in April, she was invited to a meeting with Wheeler staffer Sam Adams, Office of Community Safety Director Mike Meyers, and staff in the Office Management and Finance (which oversees OVP).

“It was made clear to me in that meeting that in light of all the gun violence that was happening that was not something that we could afford to wait on and that this was going to happen and that I needed to get involved in the process,” wrote Greene.

Greene wrote that her office was given less than 72 hours to identify groups that could get “boots on the ground” to immediately curb the city’s gun violence trends. Those were the groups that received that early May funding.

Hardesty remains skeptical of those partnerships, and has larger concerns about OVP’s general attitude around gun violence prevention work.

“When I talk to community groups that work with OVP, they say they are not treated as professionals, they are treated as backup for the police,” said Hardesty. “They want partnership with the city. But the way that office has operated… it has never built the relationships necessary to build a real partnership.”

Organizations that have partnered with OVP in the past— Portland’s Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA), Latino Network, Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization (IRCO), and POIC— shared this sentiment in a letter sent to Portland City Council in late June. The letter urged commissioners that, as it seeks recipients for its gun violence grants, it pledges to improve how OVP communicates with community groups while respecting the groups’ autonomy. It also asked the city to create a safety plan for protecting individuals within these groups who may be asked to support city staff or police during incidents that could attract violence.

Paul Lumley, director of NAYA, told the Mercury that NAYA staff funded through OVP grants are sometimes called on to attend funerals of people killed by gun violence or show up at hospitals where victims of gun violence are being treated.

“They are asked to help with de-escalating spaces where more violence could take place,” Lumley said. “It’s a high risk job.”

Lumley said that’s why he was excited to hear in April that City Council had committed substantive funding to these gun violence grants, to guarantee that staff hired with the funds were paid appropriately for the risky position.

“We have a problem with getting contracts with the city that offer living wages,” said Lumley. “We see value with hiring those with lived experience to do the work, but it’s hard to retain staff with wages so low.”

NAYA was one of the several organizations that was approved to receive funds through the new budget proposal passed in April. Yet, Lumley said he’s been disappointed by how long it’s taken for those promised funds to reach his organization. As of September 6, he had yet to see the promised $500,000 contract signed by the city.

"City Council’s April action felt like a downpayment on what we hoped a sustained and increasing investment in our work would look like. But we haven’t seen anything yet."

Latino Network Director Tony DeFalco, who also is expecting a $500,000 contract with OVP, shared this frustration.

“City Council’s April action felt like a downpayment on what we hoped a sustained and increasing investment in our work would look like,” said DeFalco. “But we haven’t seen anything yet.”

DeFalco said he’s “chalking it up to a little bit of growing pains” at OVP, an office that isn’t used to overseeing a large budget.

According to Office of Community Safety Director Mike Myers, who has helped OVP distribute the gun violence prevention dollars, the contracts with NAYA, Latino Network, and other nonprofits were finalized last week. Myer said the delay was, in part, due to the work of restructuring city contracts after getting feedback from organizations in June.

“I wanted to start fresh,” said Myers. “I wanted the people who live in the communities most impacted by gun violence to tell us what we could be doing differently, and they did. I feel like we’re now moving in the right direction.”

It’s not the end of the conversation for Myers. His office is now helping OVP reach out to community groups that haven’t partnered with the city in the past, in an attempt to support smaller, newer organizations with funding gaps.

He said that he’s planning on requesting additional funds during the next city budget cycle—which begins July 2022—to make the city’s financial commitments to community organizations that help with gun violence prevention more reliable and permanent.

“I don’t see this as a one time investment,” said Myers. “This is extremely technical work, and requires a commitment on our end.”

While Lumley and DeFalco agree with Myers, Hardesty doesn’t share this outlook. Hardesty said that this year’s investment in community groups was an emergency response to Portland’s gun violence crisis.

“It is not the core mission of the City of Portland to offer nonprofit services,” said Hardesty. “I don’t anticipate funding a full-blown office to support nonprofits who already get money from the state and county. What I see this as is a stop gap. Because we need to address what's happening on our streets today.”

In the meantime, it’s not clear if Hardesty’s August request to permanently move the gun violence prevention funds out of OVP’s office will be heard by Wheeler’s office.

"I don’t see this as a one time investment. This is extremely technical work, and requires a commitment on our end."

Hardesty’s staff received a quick response to her August letter by Lee, Wheeler’s chief of staff. In an email obtained by the Mercury through a records request, Lee scolded Hardesty’s office and other City Hall staff who knew about the issues raised in the letter for participating in “‘gotcha’ divisive politics.”

“Prior to receiving this letter, none of you took the time to reach out to me or Nike Greene to clarify why this letter was being drafted, knowing well that this could prompt public controversy and cause significant distress to the OVP employees,” wrote Lee. “And create lasting distrust between our offices.”

Lee said that he would schedule meetings with involved staff, commissioners, and bureau directors to discuss the future of OVP in coming weeks.

As oversight changes hands, community groups remain hopeful that the investment in their communities will help turn the tide on the current rate of shootings across Portland.

“[City] Council has done a wonderful thing by saying, ‘Listen, we need to pay special attention to our communities when responding to gun violence,” said DeFalco. “I’d like to show them that it will pay off.”