PORTLAND, Ore. — Without an infusion of cash from state or local governments, the organization behind Oregon's largest homeless shelter has warned that it may need to shut its doors by the end of this week. A vote by the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners could end up making the difference.
Helping Hands Reentry Outreach Centers, the group behind Bybee Lakes Hope Center in North Portland, announced last month that they'd stopped accepting new shelter admissions due to lack of funding. They've asked Multnomah County for $5 million out of the roughly $65 million it has in unspent funds earmarked for homeless services.
When Helping Hands made that announcement back in mid-August, they said that Bybee Lakes had 175 beds in use out of a total capacity for more than 300 residents. The facility finalized an expansion to add much of its current unused capacity back in March.
Billy McClintock walks the halls of Bybee Lakes with pride and purpose. But the program here has given him something else as well, something he found on the second floor. He spends much of his free time in the art room up there.
"I can't stand being stagnant and not feeling a part of something," McClintock said. "This room makes people have a sense of pride."
McClintock lost his housing and moved into the Bybee Lakes shelter about nine months ago. He didn't have anywhere else to go.
He lives off Social Security and pays about $250 a month for a room at Bybee Lakes. Since he's a part of their re-entry program, not just someone staying in their short-term emergency shelter, he's required to volunteer and take life classes, learning how to manage money and stay healthy.
"This is really a godsend to all of us," McClintock said. "This is my little family, even though we're not a family."
But this could all go away if Bybee Lakes doesn't get the funding it needs, according to Helping Hands founder Alan Evans.
"We would hate to have to close our doors in all of the communities we serve," Evans said in August. "The money is going out faster than its coming in, so we've had to make a call for the time being to halt services."
Helping Hands operates 11 facilities in five counties, providing a total of 430 shelter beds statewide. Bybee Lakes is their largest shelter.
Right now, Bybee Lakes does not receive any support from Multnomah County. Evans has asked the county for $5 million.
"Our financial forecast shows that we go into the first week of September making our last payroll on Sept. 9," he said.
Not long after Helping Hands made its dire announcement that it would pause new admissions, Multnomah County commissioners began their first discussions about what to do with the unspent funding for homeless services. Bybee Lakes came up frequently in those talks, and there appeared to be enough political will to support the shelter and re-entry program.
Commissioners are expected to vote on how to spend that money by the end of this week, just days before Bybee Lakes would otherwise be forced to close, according to Evans' accounting.
Last month, Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson told KGW that her team is working with Helping Hands and Gov. Tina Kotek's office to find a solution for the status of Bybee Lakes Hope Center. However, she said that any investment would need to ensure the organization's long-term future.
In response to a request for comment, Vega Pederson provided the following statement on Tuesday:
"Given the crisis on our streets, none of us wants to see a single shelter bed disappear from our homelessness continuum of care right now.
"That’s why I am in ongoing negotiations with Helping Hands to reach an agreement to provide them with the baseline funding they need over the next several months to keep Bybee Lakes open.
"I also need to ensure that taxpayer dollars are well spent, which is why I will insist on a careful review of Helping Hands’ finances. And, if we proceed with funding, that is why we must require that they create a plan to ensure their long-term financial viability.
"In our conversations with them, they have been open to requirements around financial and fiscal transparency. We are in the process of gaining more information, and we trust that Bybee Lakes will provide the full disclosure we need."
Willamette Week reported that Vega Pederson has offered Bybee Lakes about $800,000 on the condition that they hire a third-party firm to look over their finances. Helping Hands has said that they need at least $1.5 million to make it to the end of this year.
County Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards told KGW on Monday that she is proposing a $5-7 million contract with Bybee Lakes on the condition that they add another 150 shelter beds and meet financial criteria to prove their long-term stability.
The board's session on Thursday will only address part of its underspending. Out of $58 million in underspent funds identified in a corrective action plan — which is separate from the millions of dollars collected in Supportive Housing Service Tax funds over what the county anticipated — the county said that $17 million is not yet spoken for. The rest was previously budgeted elsewhere.
Bybee Lakes, the county said, is not part of the corrective action proposal and would have to be dealt with via a separate agenda item if negotiations prove fruitful. The earliest that could happen would be Thursday.
Last week, Helping Hands facilities in Clatsop and Tillamook counties started accepting new intakes again, thanks to contributions from a health insurance agency that does work on the coast. But the future of Bybee Lakes remains a question mark.
"It'd be another punch on me, and a hard one," said McClintock on the prospect of Bybee Lakes closing. "We're in a pathetic situation and a real hard situation, and if Bybee does that ... well, sure, it'll be tragic to everyone here."
Editor's note: Story updated Tuesday with County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson's statement and additional information from Multnomah County.