Opinion: Portland should use city tax dollars to clear city streets


Kimberely Dixon, Kristen Downs and Sohrab Vossoughi

Dixon and Downs are community advocates and Vossoughi is a downtown business leader. They are all Portland residents and supporters of People for Portland.

Homelessness in Portland and Multnomah County is getting worse, and it’s time for local elected officials to acknowledge that the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services is a failure. The Portland City Council should immediately stop sending city tax dollars to this growing bureaucracy and put this funding – $45 million this year alone – to more effective use.

Created in 2016 to coordinate the city and county’s efforts on homelessness, this agency now includes at least nine people with six-figure salaries, according to the Oregonian/OregonLive’s 2021 salary database. The office has a staff of 96 and a budget of $262 million for fiscal year 2023 – double the 45 full-time positions and $135 million budget of just two years ago. That $262 million, much of it doled out to nonprofit partners, amounts to roughly $50,000 for each of the 5,228 people living without permanent housing in Multnomah County. When people talk of a “homeless industrial complex,” they are describing the Joint Office of Homeless Services.

Are city and county staff needed to battle our way out of this crisis? absolutely. But the Joint Office isn’t getting the job done. Therefore, the city should instead use the $45 million it sent this year to the Joint Office to fund city agencies and programs focused on ending camping on city streets, sidewalks and public places. Those needs are not a priority for the county officials who control the Joint Office.

But they should be. According to the county, 126 people died in 2020 on city streets. The unsheltered homeless population has been rising. When illegal camps are cleared, there are no designated areas for people to go. Too many federal housing vouchers go unused and too many shelter beds sit empty. We regularly see headlines about the crime, drug use and overdoses taking place at or near homeless camps.

The decade-long chorus from homeless advocates and most local politicians is that progress is being made. Just give them more money and time. But the eyes of Portlanders don’t lie — the crisis is getting worse. The homeless crisis is now a public safety crisis, public health crisis, drug addiction and overdose crisis, mental health crisis and housing crisis. Recently, leaders of four respected local non-profit organizations serving people on the margins of society issued a chilling cry for help. Every day, local news reports stories of neighborhood residents living in frustration and fear from nearby tent cities. Disabled Portlanders unable to navigate city sidewalks had no choice but to file a federal lawsuit to uphold their basic rights.

Simply put, Portland and Multnomah County politicians should end the inhumane policy of using city streets as the public waiting room for services and housing for the homeless. It is deadly, unsafe and unfair – to everyone. It’s time for city and county elected officials to set aside ideology and use tax dollars currently growing a failed bureaucracy to instead create designated camping areas and more emergency short-term shelters with access to vital services. This is not a permanent solution. But it is a practical and necessary first step to transition people back into society and reclaim city streets. For those unwilling to accept help, existing “no camping” laws should be enforced.

One year ago, we helped launch People for Portland. Our goal is to push politicians for greater urgency, action, and results to address homelessness, public safety and trash. Even when the responsiveness of elected officials has been disappointing, the grassroots action from Portlanders has been inspiring. In the past year, 114,000 people have visited the People for Portland website for information and more than 15,000 have signed up to deliver 464,700 emails to city, county and state elected officials. More than 1,000 people and businesses have made donations of all sizes to amplify the voices of others. We all care about Portland’s future – and we won’t give up on the city we love.

Downtown business executives Greg Goodman and Jim Mark also co-authored this op-ed.

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