Homelessness is an issue that plagues many cities, including Portland, Oregon. The Joint Office of Homeless Services was established in 2016 as a joint effort between Multnomah County and the city of Portland to streamline the local government’s response to homelessness. However, the agency is now at risk of losing key support from the city of Portland.
The Tension Between City and County Leaders
For years, Portland City Council members have been expressing their dissatisfaction with the current structure of the Joint Office’s setup. They have been seeking more control over how their funds are being utilized and have been critical of the oversight structure of the office.
As a form of protest, certain city commissioners have expressed their intention to vote against the annual contract extension with the county to operate the Joint Office. Commissioner Rene Gonzalez articulated his concerns at a council meeting, emphasizing the unsustainability of the current status quo and how the outcomes are not meeting their expectations.
Differing Views for Addressing Homelessness
The tension between the county and city stems from their differing views on addressing homelessness. City leaders have been advocating for the Joint Office to operate and establish more homeless shelters, while county leaders have been focused on affordable housing solutions and rent stabilization for low-income tenants who are at risk of homelessness.
Another concern raised by the city is that the Joint Office has been underspending public funds, specifically the regional tax allocated for supportive housing services. According to the latest quarterly report, the office has only spent half of the $36 million it received from Metro, the regional government responsible for overseeing the housing services tax.
Oversight Structure of the Joint Office
According to Portland City Council members, the oversight structure of the Joint Office excludes them from crucial decisions, particularly when Portland residents expect prompt action from their city leaders regarding homelessness. Mingus Mapps, the commissioner, expressed confusion as to why the allocation of city funds requires negotiation and stated that this would not be the case in any other situation. Mapps also intends to vote against the contract extension.
Potential Consequences of Losing the Joint Office
Losing the Joint Office could result in a fragmented response to homelessness, as the city and county would have to work separately to address the issue. This could lead to a lack of coordination and communication, resulting in wasted resources and ineffective solutions. Losing the Joint Office could also reverse their progress and lead to an increase in homelessness in Portland.
Updates to the Contract
Portland City Council delayed the vote on the contract extension for Joint Office until next week to finalize a more suitable contract. The new contract includes provisions to assess the relationship between the city and the Joint Office. The city is required to assess the contract in December 2023 so that they may determine whether it is wise to continue the contract or dissolve it for the July 2024 fiscal year. Multnomah County officials are also required to send annual budget proposals for the Joint Office to the city for feedback.
Commitment to Partnership
In an email to OPB, Jessica Vega Pederson, the Multnomah County Chair, acknowledged the city’s intention to revise the contract’s terms. She stated that she shares the city’s goal of having more accountability, transparency, and improved outcomes from the Joint Office. Even though they will collaborate with the city to make the contract work, they are focused on ensuring the success of their long-term partnership and getting the short-term extension right.
The Joint Office of Homeless Services is at risk of losing key support from the city of Portland, which could result in a fragmented response to homelessness. While the tension between the city and county is rooted in officials’ differing views on addressing homelessness, it’s important for them to work together to find a solution that benefits everyone. The current contract includes several updates meant to strengthen the city’s role in the agreement, and both sides are committed to making the partnership work. By working together, the city and county can continue to make progress in reducing homelessness and addressing this critical issue.
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