Commissioner Beason Statement on Intergovernmental Agreement for Joint Office of Homeless Services


Today I joined the majority of my colleagues in passing a new intergovernmental agreement (IGA) between Multnomah County and the City of Portland regarding the Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS). So much of the work we do to end homelessness crosses departments and jurisdictions. I am glad this IGA recognizes that. 

We all recognize that homeless people are not a monolith. They come to it in different ways, experience it in different ways and they get out of it in different ways. We strive to make a system that recognizes that. While we do, we also fight against historical and deeply held tropes about who homeless people are, and how they got there. 

Princeton University psychology researchers Lasana Harris and Susan Fiske proved to us back in 2006 what we already knew. Our brains are very effective at seeing social outcasts—whether they are people of color, drug addicts or the unhoused as less than human, even if we don’t want it to. That’s what we mean by unconscious biases. They are built by the societal waters we swim in and regardless of their immorality, they become hardwired. 

Of course, our society’s disgust at homelessness is nothing new. And yet, the failure of our local and federal housing policies—and the doubling down of national message machines funded by people with far more nefarious goals than just demonizing homeless people—well all of this has deepened that disgust and tested our patience. No, you can’t have a tent! Share your needles you addict and live with the consequences you brought on yourself! This disgust has inverted our thinking of what the data show to be true: Homelessness is a housing problem, not a human failing.

We have to build more housing for people making a range of incomes. We have to lower the cost of rent for a good many of them. The County is dependent on recent changes in our State’s land use laws and our partners in Metro and cities to boost housing production of all kinds. This work can’t happen fast enough. Until then and maybe for years to come we need shelters—and better ones than we built in the past. But we also need rent assistance, eviction prevention and other tools. I think the IGA and HRAP recognize this.

And for those who face barriers to housing beyond the affordability and availability of an apartment—barriers like addiction, mental health challenges, court fines and criminal records, or simply being on the streets for too long to succeed going directly into a home—well this IGA recognizes we must knit together our shelter, healthcare, mental health and substance treatment systems far more effectively than ever before.

I agree with Commissioner Brim-Edwards, and I’m not sure anyone disagrees, that our collective work will have failed if we do not reduce the overall number of homeless people. Still, rising homelessness is driven by so many parts of our systems that our County does not control. We must work together with those that do control those systems. That’s about data, deeper coordination and results-driven work. I appreciate seeing this recognition and those investments in this IGA and HRAP.

We want homelessness to be a rare and brief experience. Too often, the disgust and impatience of our lesser selves will settle for just the sight of homelessness to be a rare and brief experience. Out of sight, out of mind. But we all recognize that reducing the visibility of homelessness is not the same as reducing homelessness itself. 

Homelessness can be neither rare nor brief without well-funded and well-staffed systems of care that can help people break through barriers like addiction and domestic violence. 

Homelessness can be neither rare nor brief without decent homes that people can afford to live in for the long haul.

And while it is not an outcome in and of itself, homelessness can be neither rare nor brief without collaboration, cooperation and compromise across sectors, governments and those we elect to represent us to reach the goal I think we all want: a home for everyone. Now it’s up to us and the City of Portland to decide if we want to keep turning the corner together, or retreat to our separate corners to tackle our region's most pressing issue. 

As Commissioner Meieran points out, the Joint Office is relatively new. The County and City of Portland created it in 2016 with about $40 million. This next year, the budget is more than $395 million—an 888% increase in eight years. There are very few enterprises that could ever scale so quickly, government or for-profit, without missteps and agita. It has not been anywhere close to perfect, and direction from different elected officials has often been at odds, increasing the challenges. Yet we have seen more and more people leaving homelessness, as bumpy as it’s been. And when the stakes are so high, the bumps affect real people’s lives. 

I want to return to the Juneteenth proclamation this board passed this morning. I can only imagine the patience our Black ancestors mustered for two and a half centuries through such brutality. I don’t know how they did it. 

But I do know how the disgust that our nation manufactured against Black people’s existence took root in our unconscious biases, in our institutions, in our society. We still feel it today, including in the intersections of the unhoused.

If we are not intentional in our words, deeds and actions we run the risk of the disgust that lives in our unconscious selves taking root in our institutions, in our society and in the practices we pursue in the name of ending homelessness. None of us want that. So I think it is our responsibility in the way we talk to residents, the way we work together and the way we treat one another to make sure that it does not. It is easier said than done. But I believe we can.