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People for Portland seeks to eliminate outdoor homeless camping with new ballot initiative

The initiative has received pushback from the coalition that crafted the homeless services tax, arguing it would do little to get people into housing.

PORTLAND, Ore. — People for Portland, a lobbyist group that seeks to pressure city leaders to address issues like homelessness, trash and crime, has proposed a ballot measure that would redirect a majority of the money raised by a Metro homeless services tax exclusively to opening more shelter beds. 

In May 2020, Metro voters passed a tax on high-earners to fund homeless services, expected to bring in roughly $250 million a year for 10 years, for a total of $2.5 billion. It placed an income tax on individuals earning more than $125,000 a year or couples making $200,000 or more, and a 1% tax on profits from businesses with gross receipts over $5 million. 

The money was intended to prevent and reduce homelessness in Washington, Clackamas and Multnomah Counties. 

The new initiative from People for Portland, which was founded by political strategists Dan Lavey and Kevin Looper, would redistribute the supportive housing services funds. Governments would be required to put 75% of the money toward creating shelters, though it does not specify what kind, until there are enough beds for every unhoused person sleeping on the streets. Metro cities would then have to enforce bans on unsanctioned camping to continue receiving money collected by the tax.

"The theory behind it is we need to get people, as a first step, toward housing and safety, off the streets and into shelters," said Lavey.

A recent poll found voters in Portland are fed up after seeing little progress on the homeless crisis.

"It will fulfill what we said we were going to do two years ago when the Metro $2.5 billion homeless services measure passed. Which is, address the nightly crisis, the humanitarian crisis that's unfolding on our streets," Looper added. "Not wait 10 years for nirvana mañana, not have 22 months of meetings talking about what we're gonna do five to eight years from now. But actually do something about the human suffering, the violence, the drug abuse, the rape that's happening every night on our streets.

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The measure requires an annual audit, and seeks to eliminate conflicts of interest by keeping people who are paid by the housing services tax off of oversight committees. It would also allow any Metro resident to sue the government if they feel the government is not enforcing the new law. 

"It turns out that politicians do what they want to do most of the time. Allowing citizens to sue — and if they sue and win, have the government pay their legal fees — is a really good way to get politicians to remember that they're supposed to do the thing we voted for them to do," Looper said. 

The proposal was immediately unpopular with the coalition overseeing the measure.

"The proposed ballot measure would take away 75% of voter-approved funding from homeless solutions — mental health, addiction services, affordable housing, case management — and put it all towards shelter. That is an approach that has failed time and again," said Angela Martin, co-director of Here Together. 

It's an approach that would have failed Rebecca, a woman who recently shared with The Story that she now has a safe place to call home and a new job thanks to the case management, rent support and job training that she got through the supportive housing measure.

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Martin said in the first six months, the tax created roughly 1,600 shelter beds, prevented eviction for 1,400 families, paid to clean 1.2 million pounds of trash off the streets, and will provide housing and services for 2,400 families by June of this year. 

"We are moving people off the street and we need to keep doing it," Martin said. 

Looper worked with Martin on the 2020 measure, and helped create the coalition that helped get the tax passed in the first place. Now one of its most vocal critics, he wants to change it. 

"We passed the measure and we told everybody who voted on it that we are going to solve the homeless crisis on the streets," Looper said. "Now many of those same groups are defending the government doing nothing, or waiting 10 years to do something, if I'm trying to be more fair, and you're going to hear them trying to defend how hard it is and how long it takes."

Five percent of the tax revenue goes toward administrative costs, data collection, grants management and accountability to make sure money is being spent properly. That leaves even less for the supportive services that help people get into permanent housing and stay there, Martin said.  

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"Those dollars are geared at breaking down a lot of the silos that have made past efforts to address homelessness a little more difficult," Martin said. "Our health systems, our criminal justice systems, all those systems that contribute to homelessness when they release someone from foster care, when they release someone from jail, we need to connect those systems so someone isn't released from jail into homelessness."

Looper blamed a "homeless industrial complex" that he believes doesn't have its priorities straight.

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"I know the people involved. I know exactly what their motivations are and the central problem we have right now is they don't believe we should be addressing the nightly problem that unfolds on the street. They really do believe that at the end of the day, we should be talking about building apartment buildings at $400,000 a unit and giving people the keys to them. And use the streets as a waiting room for that reform. And it is not okay to leave people on the street every night," Looper said. 

"We finally have the resources that match the scale of this problem," Martin said. "[People for Portland's] ballot measure turns the solutions upside down and puts a disproportionate amount into a temporary solution or temporary services that don't solve someone's homelessness. It diverts our opportunities that are just now scaling up and will put us in a holding pattern that will result in people losing their housing."

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