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Frustrated over tents downtown, mayor threatens to pull Portland from housing partnership with county

Wheeler said he directed city staff to find space for 300 new shelter beds by November and he wanted county leaders to ramp up their efforts as well.

PORTLAND, Ore — In a renewed push to get people living on the streets downtown into safe shelter spaces, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler this week threatened to pull the city, and its tens of millions of dollars in funding, out of a years-old working agreement with Multnomah County and go it alone.

The comment about Portland’s role in the Joint Office of Homeless Services came Monday during an interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board. It was reported by the paper the following day.

Wheeler, who’s up for reelection in November against opponent Sarah Iannarone, said he had directed city staff to find space for 300 new shelter beds by November and he wanted county leaders to ramp up their efforts as well.

“We want to work with our partners and encourage them to join us in focusing on the chronic homeless population. But if necessary, the city of Portland will go its own direction," Wheeler said.

The possibility came as a complete surprise to Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury.

“I learned it from The Oregonian,” she said.

In an interview Wednesday, Chair Kafoury said last year, 37,000 people received services through the Joint Office of Homeless Services, which formed in 2016 to make more efficient use of the funding and work both the city and county were already pouring into addressing the area’s housing crisis.

The joint office’s operating budget for the fiscal year 2021 is more than $75.2 million. The city and county are each contributing more than $32 million. The rest is comprised of federal and state funding.

While much of that money goes toward providing affordable housing for families, survivors of domestic violence, veterans and other groups, the joint office currently provides a little more than 1,400 beds in homeless shelters year-round.

Officials estimate just over 2,000 are sleeping on the streets in Multnomah County, and they believe that number is rising, thanks to job losses during the pandemic.

“And I think that's the thing that's so frustrating for me in this is knowing that on any given night, 12,000 people are in a home because of the work that we've done,” Chair Kafoury said. “And that any talk of dismantling the joint office is going to scare folks, and people will fear for their lives.”

Mayor Wheeler, who’s served as Portland’s housing commissioner since taking office in 2017, has often trumpeted the joint office's success. Chair Kafoury described his role in the office’s operations as “…a close partnership.”

“I know that the director of the joint office Marc Jolin sits on the mayor's weekly staff meetings,” she said.

She added she looks forward to working with newly elected Commissioner Dan Ryan, who the mayor recently announced is taking over the Housing Bureau.

Mayor Wheeler’s public push for 300 beds started last month, when he vowed to help businesses struggling downtown.

“How do we help businesses and what resources do we have, whether it’s helping support businesses that have had uninsured losses, whether it’s helping clean graffiti off of their store fronts,” he said during a press conference in late August.

In a statement Wednesday, his opponent, Sarah Iannarone, called this a “critical time” when it comes to helping people experiencing houselessness.

“We’re stronger together, with our relationships powering our policy,” Iannarone wrote. “I stand with Chair Kafoury and the thousands of houseless individuals who benefit from the Joint Office of Homeless Services in demanding our city does not divest from this vital public service at the core of Portland’s most obvious street-level crisis. Houselessness impacts all of us and this is no time for political games.”

The mayor also released a statement about his interview Wednesday. He didn’t reiterate the threat. He didn’t retract it either.

“I respect and am proud of the city-county partnership on homelessness. And, we must all acknowledge that despite that good work, we are experiencing unprecedented homelessness and livability challenges throughout our community,” the Mayor wrote. “I am prepared for an honest and transparent conversation about where we are collectively succeeding, and where we aren’t – I hope my county colleagues are as well.”

Chair Kafoury said she doesn’t believe the city will back out the joint office, especially because staff are still working on opening those hundreds of beds, a feat she believes can easily be done by November.

Regarding the mayor’s comments, she added, “That's not a campaign strategy that I think is going to work.”