Commissioner Meieran's Prepared Comments for the 1/11/22 Board Briefing on JOHS Outreach and Navigation Teams 

Thank you Commissioner Jayapal for co-sponsoring the budget note that directed this briefing to happen, and thank you to my colleagues for your support and shared interest in learning more about our outreach and navigation services. 


I also want to thank our presenters today in order - Marc, Casey, Kim, Amy and Tania.


And a shout out to a couple of the presenters, because I actually know them personally:

  • Casey - we met when I presented you with an award at Outside the Frame, an amazing nonprofit organization that trains homeless and marginalized youth to be directors of their own films and lives. There was a film on Casey, and I got to present him with the Lifetime of Achievement in a Single Year award!
  • Kim - I see regularly on the A Home For Everyone Coordinating Board, and also went out with her amazing outreach team from Cascadia Behavioral Health
  • Amy and Tania - I don’t have that direct connection with you, but I know the work of NARA, and I deeply appreciate the work that you do.

As a Commissioner who is also an emergency physician and volunteers doing homeless outreach - providing medical care directly to people living outside with Portland Street Medicine, I have been raising this issue for years. Because I’ve spoken to so many people who have told me they had never heard from an outreach worker, or, if they had, no one had ever followed up. I am so appreciative that Nicole Hayden of the Oregonian, in partnership with StreetRoots workers, did a deep dive into this issue. 


Ms. Hayden mentioned that every local government and nonprofit official interviewed said the fundamental cause for caseworkers’ failure to connect clients to housing is a shortage of federal housing vouchers. Without minimizing the dire need for additional vouchers and outreach workers, I believe our shortcomings in addressing unsheltered homelessness go beyond the number of outreach workers and vouchers that are available. This is a systems issue. 


We need to have places to navigate people to, and we need a centralized and coordinated system to manage outreach to people living outside. 


We need to know who is living on the streets and where they are so that outreach teams know where to find them. As pretty much all the presenters today mentioned, TRUST is the foundational component of all levels of outreach work, and if we can’t reliably find people, we can’t establish the follow-up and relationships that allow for the building of that trust. 


And we need a map of where hot spot issues are in terms of behavioral health and public safety, such as in Old Town/Chinatown, so that we can direct the right interventions while we are working on the longer term issues, and so that we can be proactive in siting services rather than reacting when people are desperately crying out for help.


I appreciated the broad framing of outreach services in today’s presentation, because it helped me understand some of the landscape more clearly, and also identified what for me is the key missing piece: Overarching coordination and centralization. Marc mentioned as models of coordination and centralization certain programs, including Portland Street Response and Project Respond. But to me, these are prime examples of how our system is NOT coordinated, and actually points to why coordination is so very important.


I believe that we need a single plan, informed by the workers on the frontline, with a cohesive and consistent inventory of what outreach services are available, and with a similar inventory of where services are needed, to direct where various teams should go. We need an application process that is not 26 pages long, and systems that break down barriers rather than creating them. And we need to learn from the people doing the front line work, while providing the robust technical and emotional support that they need. 


Finally, we need to listen much more extensively and effectively to the people who are experiencing homelessness. Nicole Hayden’s article provided insight directly from the people we are trying to serve, and I am deeply grateful to Ms. Hayden and StreetRoots. But frankly, I am saddened that it took an investigative reporter to do the work that the Joint Office of Homeless Services should have been doing all along.


As we enter our budget season, we have the opportunity to invest in the meaningful systemic and structural change we need in order to produce the results we want to see. But we shouldn’t be waiting on a new fiscal year budget to pursue these changes. Here are some things I believe we should be pursuing now and in our FY 2022 budget so that we have the framework to make a meaningful difference in many more people’s lives through homeless outreach: 

  1. Create a By-Name list NOW. We are hearing a lot about the upcoming Point In Time Count (PITC), with requests for volunteers and a suggestion that this will reveal how many people are living unsheltered on our streets. But a PITC is notoriously an undercount - a snapshot in time that doesn’t provide crucial information about who people are so we can direct services to meet their actual needs. A PITC is necessary right now because we shamefully have not done any type of count over the past three years, but it is not sufficient. Nicole Hayden’s article mentioned 2,037 homeless people and 60 outreach workers. With 2,037 people being an undercount when the PITC was conducted 3 years ago, meaningful information is critical to responding to our needs right now, when that number has likely doubled, possibly even tripled or more. 
  1. Establish a network of microvillages, safe parking lots, safe rest villages, and other structures (including motels, villages and congregate shelters that already exist) that forms a holistic continuum of places people can be and want to be. At a scale that provides a critical mass of places people can live that are safer and healthier than where they are now. 
  1. Map where people are so that outreach teams know where to find them, and can provide services that are meaningful and continuous. This is much more effectively done if we have a holistic network where people can reliably stay.
  1. Provide a map of outreach services that can be synchronized with the map of people living outside, and develop a centralized approach for coordinating the services and teams with the work they do best. 
  1. Develop an advisory and oversight body that ensures representation, accountability and oversight over the coordinated plan. 

I appreciate the presentation today, and some of the specifics in terms of investments. But it highlights some of the larger systems issues that we are not addressing. I look forward to elevating and focusing on these issues.


With all of that being said, I would like to finish with an homage to the people working on the frontline, providing outreach and navigation services while facing unprecedented challenges. They do the work despite the system. They do the work despite COVID. They go out in the rain and snow and record-breaking heat. We owe it to them to support them in every way we can. Thank you again to Kim, Tania, Amy and Casey, and ALL the frontline workers out there doing this work.