'An important milestone': Board of Commissioners approves final allocations in plan to address Supportive Housing Services underspending

September 11, 2023

From right, Joint Office director Dan Field, finance manager Antoinette Payne, and director of programs Kanoelehua Egleston present during the corrective action plan vote Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023.
The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Sept. 7, 2023 approved $17.6 million in one-time funding for new shelter sites, workforce supports for service providers, rent assistance, and employment programming — finalizing investments outlined in an administrative corrective action plan to address underspending of Supportive Housing Services dollars.

Metro initiated the $58.1 million plan in May 2023 after the Joint Office of Homeless Services reported Supportive Housing Services spending had fallen significantly off target over the first three quarters of Fiscal Year 2023.

Even before the plan was in place, the pace of resources reaching the community — allowing the Joint Office to serve more people either experiencing or at risk of homelessness — increased significantly in the fourth quarter. That progress left a smaller amount of funding for the corrective action plan than originally anticipated.

Beyond a series of planned investments, the corrective action plan includes performance targets and reporting requirements for the remainder of money that was budgeted for the 2022-23 fiscal year, but went unspent.

The Board in June approved about $40.5 million as part of the County’s FY2024 budget. The Board today considered how to spend the remaining $17.6 million in the plan.

Thursday’s 4-1 vote followed a series of three public work sessions and briefings since July 20  that gave commissioners and the community a chance to weigh in. Chair Jessica Vega Pederson and Commissioners Susheela Jayapal, Julia Brim-Edwards and Lori Stegmann voted to approve the allocations. Commissioner Sharon Meieran voted against the proposal.

The $17.6 million approved Thursday includes:

The Joint Office also provided outcomes metrics for each of those investments.

Public testimony

Several community members urged the Board to approve the proposed allocations, including Portland Commissioner Rene Gonzalez, who recognized the County and City’s partnership around supporting the City’s shelter sites. In addition to the two sites funded Thursday, the County helped direct state emergency dollars to fund the City’s first site, now open in southeast Portland.

We appreciate increased support from the county on TASS sites and look forward to future support there,” Gonzalez said, adding he was “very happy with how things overall have progressed.” 

A large focus of the public testimony was on the $10 million for provider capacity building grants included in the investment package. A recent County audit and a wage study report from the Joint Office both highlighted serious challenges around provider pay, recruitment and retention.

Andrew Hoan, right, leader of the Portland Metro Chamber, and Cole Merkel, co-director of Here Together, both urged the Board to approve a $10 million allocation for capacity-building and workforce supports for service providers on Sept. 7, 2023.
Cole Merkel, co-director of the HereTogether Oregon coalition that helped create and pass the Supportive Housing Services Measure, expressed support for multiple investments, but especially highlighted the capacity-building grants.

While working on the front lines of homelessness can be rewarding, it involves long, demanding hours to support people in crisis, making do on shoestring budgets, and earning low to modest wages,” Merkel said. “Nobody doing this lifesaving work should have to make the gut-wrenching decision between buying groceries and making rent. You have the opportunity to make tangible changes for our frontline workers. Please vote yes on that $10 million package and get the funds out into the hands of our nonprofits.”

Andrew Hoan, president and CEO of the Portland Metro Chamber (formerly known as the Portland Business Alliance), also offered his “absolute clear support for making sure that our frontline workers are appropriately compensated.” He also said the investments in the two City shelter sites was crucial.

Andy Miller, executive director of Our Just Future, and Laura Golino de Lovato, executive director of Northwest Pilot Project, also spoke in support of the capacity-building grants.  

“Providers are struggling to operate because contract revenues have historically run below what's needed to fund livable wages. This underfunding puts our whole homeless system and the people it supports at risk,” Miller said. “Our shared goal of a high-performing system relies on the great people who do the critical work every day and night, and we encourage you to invest the full $10 million in front of you.”

Meieran proposes, then withdraws, amendment to capacity-building allocation

Commissioner Meieran proposed an amendment to the allocation plan, suggesting the Board put $1 million toward an independent audit of the community-based organizations receiving Supportive Housing Services funds to help identify some of their needs and challenges.

Her amendment sought to earmark part of the $10 million for capacity-building grants, leaving $9 million for providers.

“This amendment seeks to recognize the intent of supporting CBOs in doing their difficult work while helping to inform their operations and achieve their optimal outcomes for the future with the ultimate goal of demonstrating a measurable positive impact on reducing chronic homelessness and getting services to the real people living in our community,” Meieran said.

Commissioner Jayapal asked for more clarification about the intent of Meieran’s proposed audit.

“The issues that we are clear on, I think, are wages and contracting practices. Those have been called out by the audit, by providers themselves, and are being addressed,” Jayapal said, pointing to an evaluation of the Joint Office currently being conducted by Health Management Associates, including an evaluation of the department’s contracting.

Meieran said an audit could help clarify what organizations might need to improve their capacity, allowing the County to respond with specific funding for those needs.

“What this could do is, if a third-party organization goes in to help the CBO, hears from them what they need, looks at their systems,” Meieran said, “it would inform what's needed to make our investment effective.”

Jayapal asked the Joint Office representatives if organizations are able to use other funding from the Joint Office to do similar work.

“They do have other funding available, and it’s my understanding that they could use their allocation of this funding, of the $10 million, to, in part, do their own evaluation that would help frame how they spend the balance of their allocation,” said Dan Field, director of the Joint Office.

Commissioner Brim-Edwards offered a “friendly amendment” to Meieran’s proposed amendment, saying she’d support Meieran’s idea if the $1 million came from a different funding source – unanticipated revenue from the Supportive Housing Services tax that the Board will vote to allocate in the coming weeks.

Meieran noted that was the intent of her amendment originally, but since the public notice for that meeting did not include discussion of the unanticipated Supportive Housing Services revenue, she decided to instead propose using underspent Supportive Housing Services funds. Meieran withdrew the amendment, saying she would bring it forward “in a different form” in a following meeting.

Board discussion and vote

Commissioner Jayapal shared her support for the package, and thanked the Chair’s office for the series of worksessions and briefings leading up to the decision Sept. 7. Jayapal said that the package’s inclusion of capacity-building grants was crucial for her vote.

“One of the main reasons we have underspent funds is that our nonprofit providers have not been able to hire and retain the staff they need to provide the services we contract with them for — so the community capacity grants are a clear priority.” 

“I’ve called this wage issue out almost every year I’ve been on the dais. It’s a fundamental problem for the County, and it’s a fundamental problem for our community at large. It’s a problem because underpaid workers add to our homeless crisis,” Jayapal said.

“There are without a doubt any number of system issues that need to be improved. We can’t stop in order to wait to put the ideal systems into place. I always appreciate my colleagues’ comments. I think we’ve gotten to a better place on this as a consequence of all of our participation. And I appreciate the Chair and the Chair’s office in your leadership to get us here,” Jayapal said.

Commissioner Brim-Edwards said she was originally planning to propose an amendment to reallocate $3 million for daytime shelter supports, to reduce the impacts of the City’s time, place and manner camping ordinance, but decided to hold off.

“I had a really good conversation this morning with the Chair, and I feel comfortable that we have a shared concern and commitment to providing daytime supports for individuals who are going to be impacted by the upcoming implementation of the city's time, place, and manner camping restrictions,” Brim-Edwards said.

The Board of Commissioners listens to a presentation before voting to approve allocations in a corrective action plan for the Joint Office's Supportive Housing Services underspending on Sept. 7, 2023.
Because the County’s ongoing study of the ordinance’s impact will be completed soon, Brim-Edwards said she wanted to wait until more information was available.

Brim-Edwards, in supporting the package, pointed to the partnership it builds with the City of Portland around shelter expansion and the metrics included for each investment.

“This action incorporates greater transparency, both with the Board and the community. It’s going to allow us to take necessary steps to evaluate whether our investments are doing what we intended them to do, and whether we should double down or modify and do something differently. It’s an important milestone,” Brim-Edwards said.

Commissioner Stegmann raised concerns about the allocation to the Temporary Alternative Shelter Sites, saying that at Safe Rest Villages, another City-supported alternative shelter program, nearby campers are not necessarily prioritized for referral into the sites.

“I would like to see some type of caveat, something that says that there is a better system that addresses who and how people get referred into those TASS sites.”

Kanoelehua Egleston, the Joint Office’s program director, confirmed that people generally must be referred to Safe Rest Villages from first responders and navigation teams that work with campsites posted for removal, and that referrals are not entirely based on where people are currently located. Stegmann said she would appreciate a broader conversation on the referral process at a later time, because of its “ramifications when we look at acquiring other properties and geographic equity.”

Stegmann highlighted the package’s overall partnership with the City in giving her support.

“What’s really exciting is, really, we’ve never been so united as jurisdictions, as a community, as a business community, as nonprofits, and as providers. This is an important moment in time for us to recognize,” she said.

“We are working side-by-side with the City of Portland. We have listened to our community, and we will continue to do that, working in partnership with anybody who wants to move forward and has significant solutions for how we address homelessness.”

Commissioner Meieran criticized the overall corrective action plan process for not providing the Board with more input earlier in negotiations. Under that process, approved by the Board as part of the County’s contract with Metro, a designee from the Chair’s office is tasked with negotiating an administrative plan with Metro, with the Board retaining its authority to approve any allocations included in the plan. 

She also said that although she supports the goals of the allocations approved — including shelter expansion, housing assistance, and workforce supports for frontline workers — she questioned the metrics and details attached to the investments and whether they will actually deliver on the outcomes promised. 

“I truly support the organizations, and we need to create the systems in which they function most effectively and where they can be supported and get the money they need to invest most effectively in their people and organizations,” Commissioner Meieran said. 

“I believe the [corrective action plan] as written is flawed. It’s about spending funds as quickly as possible, which is the way it’s always been, rather than a plan for responsibly using taxpayer dollars.”

Vega Pederson offered some final comments before the Board approved the allocations, charting the plan’s origin in negotiations between the County and Metro.

“Their concern as well as mine was making sure that these dollars that were supposed to be used in our community in the last fiscal year were able to be put out into the community in a very timely manner while also having the impact on the crisis that we need to see,” Vega Pederson said. “In considering what these investments should be, it was listening to our partners, listening to stakeholders, listening to other jurisdictions about the most critical needs right now in our community.”

“I want to thank my fellow commissioners for engaging in process discussions that have been productive and in service to communities who need and deserve our investment,” Vega Pederson said. “I’m glad we’ve continued to take time as a board to listen, discuss, query, question and think through our strategy collaboratively — and that the end result includes legislative action on this administrative plan.”

The Board will continue an ongoing discussion on the related — but separate question — of how to spend the greater-than-forecasted Supportive Housing Services revenue collected by Metro last year. Metro estimates Multnomah County’s share of those one-time dollars will be close to $50 million.