Multnomah County’s transparency on homeless spending criticized

PORTLAND, Ore. (KGW) — Tens of millions of dollars each year flow through the Joint Office of Homeless Services, the Multnomah County-helmed agency tasked with spearheading the response to homelessness throughout the Portland area. Despite the high stakes, the head of an advisory committee tasked with overseeing the JOHS budget claims that the county has been chronically opaque.

Since voters approved the Supportive Housing Services tax in 2020, high-income earners have been providing an enormous amount of money to the joint office. And beyond the county board, which proposes and approves the overall budget, there’s an all-volunteer budget advisory committee that’s supposed to help oversee the JOHS budget.

Daniel DeMelo is current chair of that committee, and he recently published an op-ed in The Oregonian/OregonLive about how he “can’t vouch for” the joint office’s effectiveness.

“The county doesn’t want to have oversight on the way its spending money, so that it can continue to spend money in a way that doesn’t actually address the problems that Portlanders have,” DeMelo told The Story’s Pat Dooris.

RELATED: Audit: Late payments, poor communication plague service providers’ interactions with Multnomah County homeless agency

DeMelo isn’t an expert on finance. He’s a 26-year-old who works for a small software company and wanted to get involved in local government, joining the committee in October 2022. On paper, he’s precisely the sort of person that the county wanted when they included the budget committee in the ordinance that formed the JOHS. Most recently, he’s filed a notice of intent to run for a seat on Portland’s expanded city council in 2024.

“So the board of commissioners puts out their budget, or the chair puts out her budget,” DeMelo explained. “We take a look at it and then we give our advice on it. We were appointed by the board of commissioners but they have not followed county code in terms of how we’ve been appointed.”

According to DeMelo, the county has essentially been blowing off his committee, telling them that they are not needed right now. He said that it’s nearly impossible to get answers for questions that should be simple to address.

“I would love to have an answer about whether there is an industrial homeless complex or not. The most frustrating thing in all of this is that the county won’t answer questions we ask about that,” DeMelo said. “We went to the county and we asked, ‘You guys are spending a lot of money on rental assistance vouchers. That’s great. Who are the top landlords who are receiving those funds?’ And they refused to answer that question.”

Without some of this information, DeMelo said he can’t determine whether the joint office is being effective or not. But he clearly agrees with Commissioner Sharon Meieran, who told The Story in May that Multnomah County has no overall plan for addressing homelessness.

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

“My main concern about the joint office is that we don’t have a plan to end homelessness,” DeMelo said. “Since 2016, which was the last time we had a plan to end homelessness, we have not had a plan to end homelessness. When I asked the county, ‘Do you guys have a plan to end homelessness? Do you have a target date?’ They laughed.”

Multnomah County has a host of different advisory committees like DeMelo’s. They give input to the sheriff’s office, the library system, the health department and more. Multnomah County’s newest commissioner, Julia Brim-Edwards, has an extensive background in government and volunteer boards, so Dooris asked her for another perspective.

“I think they are very legitimate issues for the committee to raise and to be asking for more information,” Brim-Edwards said. “This is — the supportive services tax is a brand new tax. Over the life of the tax (it’s) gonna be more than a billion dollars. And more importantly, not just how we effectively spend taxpayer dollars, but having transparency, accountability, making sure that taxpayer dollars are being spent effectively, are really important.”

Brim-Edwards said she does not know why the advisory committee was ignored before the most recent county budget was approved, but she’s promised to bring them in on future decisions. She’s already met with them a few times.

“I think it’s a very valid issue to be raised at this point in the process, especially as we head into the fall and next year’s budget process. We really do need citizen engagement-transparency and accountability. After all, the budget? Here, it’s three volumes, its a $3 billion budget and their piece is a very significant portion of that. And like I say, it’s a new tax and we want to make sure money is being spent well and we count on citizens and community members to advise us.”

Dooris emailed each of the four commissioners, as well as the county chair. Jessica Vega Pederson’s office responded with a statement, which reads in part:

“We inherited an involvement process that had been paused and resuming that work was bumpy because of staff vacancies. I’ve asked the Office of Community Involvement to help overhaul this process in the coming year. The advisory committee for the Joint Office is only one of five community committees advising the Joint Office, and is specifically tasked with helping with the budget process. Our goal is to have a much stronger process in place by this next budget season.”


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