Oregon Cities

Multnomah County, Portland present plan to halve unsheltered homelessness by 2026

FILE: People living in tents in Portland in 2021. Multnomah County’s homeless population had reached more than 11,000 people by January 2024.

FILE: People living in tents in Portland in 2021. Multnomah County’s homeless population had reached more than 11,000 people by January 2024.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

Multnomah County and the city of Portland unveiled details Monday of a long-promised plan to overhaul the region’s response to homelessness.

“Portlanders have rightly demanded action from their elected leaders, and the implementation of this plan will result in a more effective and unified strategy to address the homelessness crisis,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said in a statement.

The offices of Wheeler and Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson created the sweeping plan. It lays out a goal to halve the region’s unsheltered homeless population by 2026, add hundreds of new shelter beds, build more affordable housing, expand access to mental health and substance abuse treatment, improve data collection and create new committees to oversee this work.

“Today we unveil a comprehensive and ambitious plan because the people living on our streets need shelter, safety, support and a path to housing,” Vega Pederson said in her statement on the proposal.

The pitch may sound familiar: In 2015, Portland declared a “housing emergency” and partnered with the county to tackle the city’s growing homelessness crisis with an ambitious plan to cut its 3,800 homeless population in half, open more shelters, build more housing and establish new oversight bodies.

Nearly a decade later, the county’s homeless population has nearly tripled to more than 11,000 people in January, mirroring a similar surge in homelessness within West Coast cities in recent years. The region is falling far behind in meeting the demand for affordable housing, and the original plan’s oversight body, called A Home For Everyone, dissolved in 2022.

And public opinion polls continue to identify homelessness as the top issue concerning Portlanders.

This new 43-page proposal acknowledges the shortcomings of past strategies.

“Plans and prior investments have proven insufficient to meet the scale and complexity of the challenges we face today,” the document reads. “It is time for our system leaders to step into this breach and establish a much more broadly resourced and coordinated system that acts with precision, strategic focus, nimbleness and speed.”

It’s not yet clear how the latest plan will truly change course.

The previous plan established the Joint Office of Homeless Services, a county department co-funded by the city. This new plan will rely on the Joint Office, along with health care providers, housing agencies and all levels of government to carry out. Vega Pederson said this is the biggest change from the 2015 plan.

“I think one of the big differences is that we are looking at bringing everybody who’s a part of this into the table,” she said at a Monday press conference. “We’ve got healthcare, we’ve got housing development, we’ve got the first responders, we’ve got the justice system and all those agencies as a part of it. This isn’t just about the Joint Office.”

Much of the plan’s short-term goals center on creating additional plans — like a strategy for increasing shelter, a proposal to streamline behavioral health services and a plan to learn how to bill Medicaid for services.

The proposal does pledge more concrete goals to achieve by December 2025, like creating 1,000 shelter beds, adding more than 2,200 supportive housing apartments, increasing the number of treatment beds for people with a substance use disorder or mental health needs by nearly 300, and ensuring that 75% of people housed through the plan remain housed for two years.

The plan also pledges to end the practice of discharging hospital patients and incarcerated people to the street by 2026 and to eliminate homelessness altogether for youth aging out of the foster care system by 2027.

Perhaps the most central goal is cutting the region’s unsheltered population in half.

Of the estimated 11,153 people currently experiencing homelessness in Multnomah County, county staff have confirmed that at least 5,398 are living unsheltered — with the others living in temporary shelters or elsewhere. That gives the city and county a goal of moving at least 2,699 people into shelter or housing by the end of 2025.

The work to reach these goals will be governed by three soon-to-be-assembled committees. The steering committee, made up of local elected officials, will set annual goals. That committee’s work will be informed by two additional advisory boards: an implementation committee composed mostly of city and county housing, health and public safety department directors; and a community advisory committee that includes people who have experienced homelessness or who have worked in homeless services. These groups are expected to form by June.

The plan relies on new and existing city, county and state finances. It will tap into funding in the state legislature to finance affordable housing projects and will lean on the Joint Office’s annual budget. In the past fiscal year, the city of Portland contributed $45.5 million to the office’s budget, while the county gave $59.8 million. The office is also buoyed by $207 million this year from a regional tax to fund homeless services. The Joint Office has been under scrutiny in the past year from the city — and the public — for not being able to distribute those funds to services swiftly enough.

The document also advocates for Metro to identify a funding source for additional affordable housing construction. The regional government is currently considering whether or not to advance a ballot measure that would extend the timeframe of the supportive housing services tax and direct some of that revenue into housing construction.

Gov. Tina Kotek, who has set ambitious statewide housing production goals, has already pledged her support to the proposal.

“This is the kind of coordination, data tracking, and vision required to address our acute homelessness crisis and improve outcomes for the entire community,” Kotek said in a statement. “The state is ready to be a partner in its success.”

City Commissioners Carmen Rubio and Rene Gonzalez expressed their support of the plan Monday, along with County Commissioners Julia Brim-Edwards and Lori Stegmann.

Not all politicians celebrated the proposal. Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran is an emergency medicine doctor who frequently raises concerns at county meetings about the Joint Office’s failure to meet stated goals. In an email to OPB, Meieran said the plan reads more as “political theater” than a novel solution to the region’s seemingly intractable homeless crisis.

“The current plan is more about marketing than solving homelessness,” Meieran wrote. “The only thing it will accomplish is holding more meetings while people continue to die on our streets… I challenge my colleagues to have the political courage to take a stand and not continue to go along to get along.”

Multnomah County and Portland’s proposal is just one piece of a larger strategy to revamp the region’s homelessness response. The city and county are still hammering out details of an agreement that would dictate each government’s role in managing the Joint Office. This shared oversight role has long been a source of frustration for local elected officials, who have disagreed about the best ways to spend public dollars on homelessness solutions. The new contract, which will come to a vote no later than June, is expected to address these concerns.

Vega Pederson and Wheeler will hold a joint meeting with county and city commissioners tomorrow to present their plan and gather feedback. They will also hold several public hearings to collect residents’ responses to the plan before the end of March.

This story may be updated.

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