Amid recent efforts to more aggressively stifle street camping in Portland and put a visible dent in the region’s homeless crisis, city leaders are scrutinizing their primary government partner. 

The Portland City Council lambasted Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) Wednesday, May 24, calling for a six-month evaluation of the city’s partnership agreement with JOHS. The council tentatively approved a contract amendment that will either extend the city’s partnership with JOHS in 2024, or dissolve the agreement altogether. 

City commissioners suggested the county has been ineffective in its expenditure of money and opaque about the outcomes of its spending on homeless services. 

“I am dissatisfied with this contract. I don't understand why we keep extending it,” Commissioner Mingus Mapps said Wednesday. “We give them $43 million and we have no influence in how it gets spent.”

Mapps called the contract between the city and the county “crazy and unsustainable.”

Commissioners cited millions in unspent funds the county gets from Metro’s Regional Supportive Housing Services tax measure.

“We’re in an emergency situation,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said. “We must expend the funds available to us for the purpose for which they were intended, which is to address the [homelessness] crisis.”

County leaders say they agree with the city’s assessment that JOHS needs better internal governance and accountability.

JOHS has $46.6 million in revenue from the measure that has yet to be spent and is expected to get an extra $25 million from the Metro tax, beyond what was initially forecasted. 

Wheeler said he’d like to see JOHS cough up funding for the forthcoming temporary alternative mass shelter sites around Portland. County leadership appears to support the idea.

Jessica Vega Pederson, chair of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, called the unspent money in JOHS coffers “unacceptable.” Vega Pederson said she “shares the city’s desire for more accountability, transparency, and frankly better outcomes from the Joint Office.”

The county chair also told the mayor she’ll push for $20 million to go toward the mass shelter sites. 

“It’s important to me that there’s a process where the city and the county work together to figure out the best ways to invest this money,” Vega Pederson wrote in a statement. “I’m supportive of funding for TASS sites and will advocate for dollars to be dedicated to that through this process, but ultimately the decision is in the hands of the Multnomah County Board. We know that the public wants to see the city and the county working together. In fact, it’s absolutely necessary if we have any chance of solving the humanitarian crisis on our streets.”

In March, the county announced it would designate $4 million from the Metro tax measure toward Housing Multnomah Now—a project aimed at moving people directly off the streets and into housing, with a goal of serving 300 people in the first year. The announcement came as Vega Pederson set out to "increase transparency and collaboration among government partners."

In the city's contract amendment, Portland commissioners called for greater clarity around budget decisions from the county, moving forward. The council is requesting a “comprehensive review and assessment” of the agreement between the city and JOHS over the next six months, focused on reviewing data on outcomes from homeless services and outreach efforts.

The city also included a clause that won’t let the county spend any of its JOHS funds without first getting approval from the city on the county’s annual budget. 

“I think it's honest to say that Portlanders would agree that we are failing in our mission to reduce homelessness in our city and most would say that we are not doing enough for mental and behavioral health and drug addiction,” City Commissioner Dan Ryan, who proposed the contract amendment, said Wednesday. “We cannot continue to fund an office that isn’t delivering on the needs of our homeless community.”

Despite the heavy scrutiny, the council cited recent leadership changes within JOHS and a desire from county leaders to work with the city in its decision to continue the partnership, at least for now.  

Less than two months ago, the county announced Dan Field, a former Kaiser Permanente executive, would take over as the JOHS president. Field said he’s “confident” in the county’s path toward improved governance of JOHS.

"I think the amendment is absolutely framing the right discussion the council needs to have," Field said.

Wheeler said he’s inclined to keep working with the county, so long as communication and accountability can be improved. 

“I hear from the public loudly and clearly, that unless this relationship is truly lost, keep at it,” Wheeler said Wednesday. “I see that we’re moving in the right direction and I want to give Dan [Field] a chance, as well.”

The contract amendment will come back to the council May 31 for final approval.