Multnomah County still sitting on millions meant for homelessness

PORTLAND, Ore. (KGW) — Vern and his friend pulled shopping carts filled with cans and blankets across the train tracks under Portland’s Morrison Bridge on Wednesday morning. They had just learned their camp was being cleared by Rapid Response.

“They just showed up and said we got to move,” said Vern.

For him, homelessness means learning how to hide. His latest spot under the bridge lasted him about two weeks before his camp was posted for removal.

“You got to find somewhere that’s kind of secluded, but there’s not many places,” he said.

He knows life on the streets will only get harder as he’s bracing for the daytime ban on camping that the city is expected to start enforcing sometime this fall.

“During the day you’d have to take everything you have, and that’s pretty much impossible,” he said.

Vern said that there needs to be a safe place for him to go and store his things. It’s exactly the type of place Multnomah County commissioners are trying to fund using the millions of dollars in unspent funding earmarked for homeless services.

Because of a series of financial windfalls, problems like Vern’s can’t be entirely blamed on lack of funding. For months, Multnomah County has been sitting on millions of dollars for homelessness. They figured out how to spend some of that last week, but now they have an additional $62 million they have yet to spend.

“We have so much money …. I mean, it really is shocking,” said Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran.

RELATED: Why one Multnomah County commissioner voted against spending $17 million on homeless services

Last week, county commissioners voted to spend about $17 million on expanding shelter capacity and cleaning up Portland streets, along with rent assistance and support for homeless service providers.

This week, they learned of even more money coming their way. This time it’s from the federal government.

“We should have been forewarned that this was probably going to occur. It just creates confusion and disarray,” said Meieran.

In total, Multnomah County has been sitting on more than $100 million in unspent funding meant for homeless services.

Here’s how it breaks down:

  • $50 million is from over-collected Supportive Housing Services (SHS) taxes — money received from taxpayers beyond what the county expected.
  • $12 million is from federal American Rescue Plan money, which commissioners just learned they had this week.
  • $40 million came from funding in the budget that the county simply has left unspent, which KGW was told last week would go into next year’s budget. We’re now learning it might be spent on homeless services as soon as November.

The focus this week is on how to spend about $62 million of this total.

Commissioner Meieran is proposing they spend it on three things: shelter beds, a downtown Portland sobering center and places for people to go after leaving detox or treatment.

“We should be investing in those big picture things we know we need, and that’s what I’ll be advocating for,” she said.

Commissioner Julia-Brim Edwards has a similar proposal.

“If we make a big investment in shelters now, I believe we will decrease the need for and the amount of unsanctioned camping that’s having a huge impact on our neighborhoods,” Brim-Edwards said.

It also impacts people like Vern, who is lost in what he calls a broken system with nowhere to hide.

“You’re kind of stuck, in a way,” Vern said.

On Thursday, county commissioners will meet to discuss how to spend this $62 million, and a vote will come a week later.

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