Board members share proposals for unanticipated homeless services funding in Aug. 10 work session

August 22, 2023

The Board of County Commissioners convened a special public work session Aug. 10 focused on sharing their priorities and proposals for how to use millions of dollars in unanticipated homeless services revenue collected by Metro for the Supportive Housing Services measure.

Those funds represent tax collections that significantly exceeded the forecasts Metro provided each county before Fiscal Year 2023. Because those one-time-only funds — expected to total about $47 million — were not included in the fiscal year 2024 budget, the Board must determine how those funds should be used. (These funds are also separate from any unspent Supportive Housing Services funds the Joint Office will carry over from FY 2023.)

Spending proposals discussed in the work session must comply with some parameters — they must be in line with the intergovernmental agreement between Metro and the County, and they must follow the Board of Commissioners-approved implementation plan for the Supportive Housing Services measure.

“The investments that we're discussing today, to utilize unanticipated Supportive Housing Services measure dollars, are plainly and simply tied to people's well-being, their futures, and their lives,” said Chair Jessica Vega Pederson. “As they ripple out, these investments are also about creating a community that we believe is possible. We are the ones in the leadership position to help turn this crisis around, and your engagement and recommendations are a critical piece of the puzzle we're collaboratively building.”

Sitting together around a table in the boardroom, instead of at their usual dais, all five Board members had a chance to share or reflect on priorities and proposals for the money. Board members shared a wide range of potential investments, but there were several repeated themes: the need for urgent solutions, the need for improved flow between different parts of the homeless services system, a focus on considering the fact that the funds being discussed were one-time-only, and a consideration of the current workforce issues being faced in the homeless services sector.

Commissioners bring forward proposals

Commissioner Lori Stegmann

Commissioner Stegmann said geographic equity is one of her main priorities — including expanding homelessness services in her district, which covers east Multnomah County and historically has been under-resourced.

She said she was concerned that the City of Portland’s new Time, Place and Manner camping restrictions would affect East County. “That will have a huge impact,” Stegmann said. “I foresee that houseless individuals will be forced out farther into East County.”

Proposed investments

  • $7 million for homelessness prevention rental assistance to assist 1,575 households.
  • $2 million to fund a common application pilot program for rent assistance
  • $10.5 million to pay for a capital grant for the Sheraton Four Points Inn to create a 75-unit family shelter (with the potential to spend $1 million to add a kitchen)
  • $3 million for shelter development in east Multnomah County
  • $3 million one-time funding and $2 million ongoing funding for the Bybee Lakes Hope Center shelter

Stegmann urged the Board to be pragmatic when considering investments. “We have to be realistic and sensible, with the finite amount of money that we have,” she said. “I wanted to do things that are immediate, cost effective, high impact, are turn-key projects, and that have existing staff that can execute on these programs.”

Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards

Commissioner Brim-Edwards said she was also focused on proposals that build on current investments and priorities.

“I was thinking about investments that would have high impact,” Brim-Edwards said. “They’re ones that are ready to go, or also utilize current platforms or partnerships, so that we could move ahead with urgency.”

Brim-Edwards also said she was looking beyond the unanticipated tax revenue, and that her proposals also accounted for additional carryover funds from the Supportive Housing Services Measure that haven’t yet been budgeted by the Board.

Brim-Edwards said she had four priority areas: increasing shelter capacity by adding 500 shelter beds or sleeping units and preserving an additional 220 recovery shelter beds, establishing and expanding daytime services, establishing a 50-bed drop-off detox and sobering center, and a capital investment securing 250 stabilization and recovery apartments. 

Proposed investments

  • $7 million in capital expenses for the City’s Temporary Alternative Shelter Sites
  • $2 million for a pod expansion fund — capital resources for village-style shelters
  • $5 million to expand and preserve shelter beds at Bybee Lakes Hope Center, and an additional $1-2 million to fund shelter pods at the site
  • Funding for a digital shelter platform to be used Countywide to improve access to shelter beds and to understand daily utilization rates.
  • $3 million for a day centers fund to preserve and expand daytime shelter capacity
  • $1 million for site enhancements at day centers and other shelters
  • Additional funding for daytime supports
  • $15 million for a 50-bed drop-off sobering facility
  • $25 million for a capital investment in recovery and stabilization beds

“I’m really looking forward to all the other ideas that are presented. I think we can have the opportunity to create a huge impact on our community with these funds,” Brim-Edwards said.

Commissioner Susheela Jayapal

Commissioner Jayapal said she was taking a holistic look at the funds. She recommended using the unanticipated funds as a way to leverage funding from other partners, like the State of Oregon.

“I’m thinking about these investments not in isolation, but in combination with other funding streams,” she said.

She cautioned against spending too much of the available funding only on increasing shelter beds, without also investing in housing.

“If all we do is build shelter and we have nowhere for people to go once we have sheltered them, all we will ever do is build shelter,” she said. “And there are communities around the country, and I'll point to New York City, who have landed in that situation, where they are investing billions of dollars in temporary shelter and are not able to permanently house people.”

Proposed investments

  • $10 million for capacity-building grants for provider agencies
  • $20 million for Supportive Housing Services capital investments
  • $2.8 million to serve as gap funding that would preserve and maintain existing naturally occuring affordable housing
    •  As an example Jayapal highlighted the Paramount, an apartment building that Albina Vision Trust is trying to acquire. If acquired by another developer, Jayapal said it would become market-rate housing. Gap funding from the County could help preserve those units as affordable housing, Jayapal said.
  • $4 million for eviction legal defense and eviction prevention services
  • $2.35 million to fund services for LGBTQIA2S+ people experiencing homelessness, including rent assistance and capital costs for a new day center
  • $3 million for day center expansion
  • $4.68 million for capital investments in the City's Temporary Alternative Shelter Sites

About affordable housing capital investments, Jayapal said she knows it’s not something the County typically does.

“One of the pushbacks I've gotten when I've made this suggestion repeatedly is that the County doesn't do housing,” Japayal said, noting that the County actually has owned housing before, including for victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking. “I think we're past a point where we limit ourselves by saying, ‘This isn't something that we do.’”

Commissioner Sharon Meieran

Commissioner Meieran said the funds should be used in service of a broader plan to end homelessness.

“We should be thinking globally about what we need, and how to support and fund that, and then using all the resources we can bring to bear to support an actual plan,” Meieran said. “Which leads to my refrain, the plan. It's my concern about our approach to homelessness, in general, that there is no overarching plan.”

Nonetheless, she said her proposals focus on filling gaps in the current system. “There are essential components we need, regardless of what we end up doing, that can fill crucial gaps,” Meieran said. “That is regardless of what the plan is.”

Meieran’s proposed investments focus on purchasing the Crowne Plaza hotel building in Northeast Portland, an idea she’s raised in past meetings.

“I'm proposing allocating $25 million as an anchor investment to purchase the property with small additional investments from partners. State, city, county, philanthropy, hospitals, CCOs,” Meieran said. “We are finalizing the information that I will get to all of you, but honestly, this thing should be a no-brainer.”

Proposed investments

  • $10 million for shelter and day spaces — Bybee Lakes, east Multnomah County shelters and day centers, additional alternative shelter villages, and more.
  • $25 million to purchase the 241-room Crowne Plaza hotel for recovery bridge housing

“If we do not seize that opportunity and take it now when we can, when we literally have unanticipated revenue, one-time only, capital investments, and desperate needs, it will just be a signal that we want to continue the spiral of having meetings about meetings about meetings, using the words, but not actually investing in the thing that will actually move us forward,” she said.

Commissioners discuss proposals

After Meieran shared her proposals, concluding that phase of the session, Commissioner Stegmann asked her some follow-up questions.

“The Crowne Plaza, it's a moon shot. I think it's a great, creative idea, but I guess where I have challenges is — so the sales price is $50 million, is that correct?” Stegmann asked. Meieran responded yes.

“So I guess I'm concerned how would we staff it? How would we pay for the other $25 million?” Stegmann asked. “Because that's what we're hearing — all of our contractors and CBOs can't hire people. They can't retain people. So that's why, when I'm working with organizations, the first thing I ask is, ‘Do you have staffing? Can you flip a switch and turn this program on?’”

The Board of County Commissioners discussed how to use unanticipated revenues from the Supportive Housing Services tax on Aug. 10.
Meieran said she’s been talking to community partners who are on board with the project. She said the building’s design would allow them to open one floor at a time. “Each of the floors is standalone in a sort of ten-floor facility. So you can start with two floors and build to capacity.”

Meieran also said it could be possible to do workforce training for the behavioral health sector there. “We can partner with PSU with the social work students, with others who are coming out of college and training. It’s workforce training so we get the people into the system,” she said.

Chair Vega Pederson raised concerns about using the funding for capital investments in general — without also anticipating the ongoing operation costs newly obtained or developed facilities would require.

“Everything with a capital investment — it equals ongoing obligation. It equals ongoing cost. I think the ways you fund that ongoing cost, whether it's staffing an organization to run the program that's there, whether it's what's required for ongoing maintenance…We need to be responsible and have that conversation,” Vega Pederson said.

“I really appreciated what you said, Commissioner Jayapal, about leveraging other funds. I think we need to be thinking creatively,” Vega Pederson said. “This is where we need to bring in our health department and things as we talk about Medicaid, not just for the Medicaid waiver dollars that are going to be available, but even for how we're not maximizing how we're using Medicaid now for services.”

Commissioner Jayapal said that when looking at capital investments, she was focused on investments that don’t require ongoing funding. “I will come back to the idea of acquiring affordable housing as a capital investment that expands inventory. Somebody is going to have to pay rent, but we already have a long-term rent assistance stream,” Jayapal said. 

Commissioner Brim-Edwards said that for investments that would require ongoing funding, she was expecting to have that be reflected in following years’ budgets, and to leverage money from other funding streams.

“Just in the last week, there's been a fair amount of lobbying from our partners at the city and state level on some investments. I think if we have big ideas and we're making a measurable impact and moving people off the streets to basic services, to shelter, to transitional housing, and to supportive housing, I think we can go to our partners and ask them to make a financial commitment,” Brim-Edwards said. “Small ideas very rarely attract other people's money.”

Brim-Edwards asked Vega Pederson if she would be presenting her ideas for how to use the funding.

“I get to propose things all the time. I got to propose the budget,” she said, noting she’ll be working closely with the Joint Office of Homeless Services on recommendations for other proposed spending investments that would need to go before the Board.

Vega Pederson said she’s focused on investments that make sense for immediate, one-time-only funding, and that don’t necessarily require significant ongoing spending, along with investments that prioritize geographic equity, racial equity, and LGBTQIA2S+ community members.

“A lot of investments — wage increases, grant money for our partners — those are the things that are my priorities, and those are the things that are already in the [budgeted] underspending dollars,” Vega Pederson said.

Vega Pederson said the board will have another work session Aug. 29 to continue to develop the ideas.

“I'm pleased to see we have a lot of these ideas in common,” she said. “I think the question is how we get there.”