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Some Portland commissioners reluctant to renew homeless services contract with Multnomah County

Portland gives Multnomah County $43 million per year for the Joint Office of Homeless Services, but some city council members criticized the current arrangement.

PORTLAND, Oregon — Portland and Multnomah County have an at-times rocky relationship when it comes to the homeless crisis, and the friction came up again Wednesday when two Portland city commissioners expressed frustration with the Joint Office of Homeless Services — even as Mayor Ted Wheeler separately seeks county financial support for his plan to open mass sanctioned campsites.

The joint office is run by the city and county and provides a majority of the homeless services in the area. The city gives the office about $43 million per year, but the contract is currently up for renewal, and commissioners Mingus Mapps and Rene Gonzalez expressed some reluctance to jump back in.

"We call this the joint office but there’s actually no coordination between the city and country around houselessness services," Mapps said, adding that the city's lack of influence over how the funding is spent is "deeply problematic."

The new director of the Joint Office, Dan Field, testified about the renewal at Wednesday's council meeting.

"I do think, let's keep in mind why we created a joint office in the first place. There’s a really complicated set of braided funding that needs to come together effectively to address the continuum of needs," said Field.

But Mapps and Gonzalez sounded unenthusiastic about the version of the contract currently under consideration, both during the meeting and in comments to KGW afterward.

"This is a very bad contract. No business, no government, no individual in their right mind would sign a contract like this," Mapps said.

Gonzalez said the council debated three points of contention on Wednesday, including how the county reports back to the city about the office's spending plans, the issue of full approval rights of the joint office budget, and ways to give the city more say in how the budget is structured.

"If we can make progress, I’ll support it, but I will not support renewing under its existing terms," Gonzalez said.

When asked whether there was enough time to reach an agreement before a planned vote on the contract renewal next week, Mapps replied "I sure hope so."

"We got lots of professionals and plenty of smart people working on this, we have to have this worked out," he said.

The contract renewal debate is taking place alongside a separate request from Wheeler for $25 million from the county to help fund his planned Temporary Alternative Shelter Sites, a series of sanctioned mass camp sites, the first of which is set to open this summer in Southeast Portland.

According to a county spokesperson, Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson has agreed to hand over that money upon approval from the county board. 

"It's important to me that there’s a process where the city and the county work together to figure out the best ways to invest this money," she told KGW in a statement. "I'm supportive of funding for TASS sites and will advocate for dollars to be dedicated to that through this process, but ultimately the decision is in the hands of the Multnomah County Board. We know that the public wants to see the city and the county working together. In fact, it’s absolutely necessary if we have any chance of solving the humanitarian crisis on our streets."

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