Health and Joint Office leaders report progress on $30.4 million surplus emergency investments

March 7, 2022

Health Department and Joint Office of Homeless Services leaders on Thursday, March 3, briefed the Board of County Commissioners on the progress of emergency investments made last fall with $30.4 million in Business Income Tax surplus revenue and other funding. 

They detailed ongoing work to add services for people experiencing homelessness and better meet the urgent needs of the community exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Priorities include expanding street outreach services, adding shelter spaces, launching behavioral health programs, and improving public and environmental health conditions. 

“While there’s so much work — yes, we can always do better — I think we’re making significant strides and was really grateful to hear this presentation today,” Commissioner Lori Stegmann said. “So thank you.”

Budget Director Christian Elkin

The surplus was the result of the Board increasing the business income tax rate in 2020, extending the tax filing deadline to May 2021, and a stronger than expected economic recovery. Final tax collections — which came in after the Fiscal Year 2021-22 Budget was adopted — were more than $30.4 million above what was forecasted in May 2021. 

Typically, the County would incorporate such revenue into its next budget, for FY 2023. But because of the magnitude of the issues facing the community, the Board decided to make some immediate and some one-time investments. 

On Nov. 2, 2021, the Board received a briefing on a $30.4 million plan for surplus funding, along with additional funding from the City of Portland and the State of Oregon. The Board then approved the plan Nov. 9.

“At the time we knew we were facing these unprecedented needs in our community and emergency needs,” said Christian Elkin, the County’s Budget Director. “So we decided to yet again embark on another budget process and came up with a solid strategic partnership with the City of Portland.” 

New investments in behavioral health

A $1.25 million investment has allowed the Health Department to work toward launching three behavioral health in-reach teams in early 2022. Modeled after similar behavioral health teams that engage with people in shelters, the program will expand access to behavioral health support in Portland’s Old Town Chinatown. 

The program will operate in partnership with Blanchet House, the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon and Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare. The goal is to have teams activated at key times during the day who can meet people where they are. The County has signed letters of intent with all of the providers so they can begin recruitment. 

“These individuals are impacted by chronic homelessness and often impacted by severe and persistent mental illness,” said Ebony Clarke, the Health Department’s director. “The services we’re able to offer is just-in-the-moment, real-time, de-escalation crisis support, so we don’t see these individuals starting to intensify in their behaviors that then result in either arrest, incarceration or having to go to the hospital.”

Another $1.25 million expands a pilot project that places qualified mental health professionals at a motel shelter site to support people exiting the Oregon State Hospital and others who need higher levels of mental health care. 

“We have teams who will focus on being able to make sure that these individuals are stable, getting to their appointments, working to triage and address any type of crisis that they may experience during the interim,” Clarke said.

The goal is to serve approximately 35 individuals at any given time, and as many as 120 over the course of a year. The program will operate at a motel shelter the County purchased during COVID-19.

“Where do people go from there? Where will those 35 to 120 people go?” Commissioner Sharon Meieran asked. 

Clarke said the goal is to help motel program participants into permanent supportive housing. But if they need additional stabilization services, or supportive housing isn’t appropriate for their needs, then they would go into residential treatment.

Improving vector control and environmental health

The Health Department was allocated $258,000 to enhance vector control services, which would mitigate rodents by hiring two new positions and reassigning specialists to focus on key areas within the city. The department began recruiting for the positions in mid-February.

Surplus funds will also help hire a new environmental health houseless response position aimed at improving environmental conditions in unsanctioned encampments, outdoor shelters and other shelter programs.

“This is an effort where Public Health is working to be in collaboration with the Joint Office of Homeless Services to look at how we bring forward effective strategies to support environmental conditions” in those settings, Clarke said. 

Public Health and the Joint Office are actively developing a work plan focusing on site visits, and mapping out strategies to address formal and informal camps. Public Health is also working with the City of Portland to improve the process that Environmental Health uses to submit trash cleanup requests to the City.

Acknowledging that the intent of the surplus funding was to “get dollars into the community as quickly as possible,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson asked presenters, “Do you feel like we are seeing things or will be seeing things soon getting folks on the ground and out into the community with some of these programs?” 

Clarke said the Health Department is working to redeploy existing employees to support the newly funded programs while it continues to focus on hiring new staff. 

Expansion in street outreach and shelter

The surplus allowed the Joint Office to expand its services, adding momentum to its outreach and shelter work. Those funds were combined with funds from the Metro Supportive Housing Services measure allocated in the FY 2022 budget that have since helped launch more than 20 programs. 

“The allocation of additional resources for a range of homeless services — in particular what we would call ‘safety on and off the streets’ capacity — represents a tremendous opportunity to meet the immediate safety needs of our unsheltered population,” said Marc Jolin, the director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services. 

A joint investment of $1.3 million between the City and the County will add four to five new outreach teams focusing on areas with high-impact camping and other acute needs. Enhanced outreach in Portland’s central core will increase connections for high-needs clients. 

An additional $350,000 split between the City and the County will prepare the Joint Office to participate in the City’s new Street Services Coordination Center, which will coordinate the allocation of available shelter bed capacity with navigation teams and public space management teams. Mayor Ted Wheeler announced emergency authorization plans for the coordination center Wednesday, March 2. The Joint Office is actively hiring for new outreach coordination positions that will support that work, among other responsibilities.

“The Joint Office will be a partner in that effort and have staff working with their incident commander and the representatives of the various bureaus that are part of the effort,” Jolin said. 

“One of the things the mayor talked about was some notion of real-time understanding of shelter bed availability,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said. “Is there visibility to how many shelter beds are available, where at any point in time?”

Jolin said the community might see reports that show a handful of beds unoccupied in the system on a given night. But he cautioned that those beds are often open because of turnover — someone has moved out and the bed is being held for someone who's in the process of moving in.

“We don’t let beds sit vacant in our system,” Jolin assured the Board, “and we very seldom have any enduring vacancy.” 

The surplus revenue, plus other state and federal funding sources, are also supporting an expansion of overall shelter capacity. The Joint Office received nearly $31.2 million in combined funds to acquire, set up and operate several new shelter projects, resulting in the addition of nearly 500 new beds. 

Two new sites are already under lease: a 125-bed women’s shelter and a 137-room motel in East Portland. The Joint Office is also evaluating additional sites in East County that can serve a target capacity of 150 people. An additional 30 motel rooms are contracted and in operation for families as a winter shelter.

Jolin said the Joint Office is also moving alternative shelter projects forward. That includes helping to support the launch of Portland Commissioner Dan Ryan’s Safe Rest Villages and also securing sites across Portland for other sites in partnership with community-based organizations. 

Increased hygiene and storage solutions

A $4.8 million expansion in hygiene and storage services will build on work the Joint Office is already funding thanks to the Metro Supportive Housing Services measure. Those programs include a mobile shower truck operated by Cultivate Initiatives, trash collection through Groundscore and new accessible bathrooms deployed in high-need areas with help from the City.

The Joint Office asked Portland State University’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative to assess hygiene and storage needs and options in the community. They submitted their report in February and the office is reviewing the report’s findings and planning specific funding requests. 

Among the findings was the importance of expanding multi-service centers near transit lines that are easy for people to reach, Jolin said. While those centers might initially take more time and money to create, he said, they are more cost effective and create predictable access to a full range of critical services. The centers could also create opportunities to engage people in housing and other more intensive service options. 

“We engaged PSU’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative right away, and they did a great job on a very tight timeline,” Jolin said. “We are now working with our partners at the City to move forward with soliciting proposals from our community partners for some of these expanded services.”

Board reaffirms urgency of investments

Several commissioners acknowledged the challenges of rapidly scaling up services and showed appreciation for the work that’s been accomplished thus far. 

Commissioner Jayapal said the new investments will bring relief to the County’s most vulnerable communities.

“The package of investments we approved from the BIT surplus was designed to address emergent conditions,” she said in a written statement. “It’s good to see progress has been made; and we must continue to act with urgency. I’m particularly focused on using these one-time funds to acquire additional shelter capacity; creating additional ways of delivering hygiene and storage; and behavioral health supports. These will deliver relief to those living in conditions we all agree are unacceptable.”

Chair Deborah Kafoury underscored the importance of the investments, noting that teams are working as hard as they possibly can to implement them on a fast timeline while also valuing the County’s commitment to equitable procurement, such as working with smaller community-based organizations.

“There is a huge sense of urgency. And as with anything, when you start a new program, it does take a little while to get off the ground,” she said. “But I don’t think it is any lack of desire to get things moving just as quickly as possible.”