Sharon Meieran believes the Joint Office of Homeless Services should be ‘overhauled’ to fix the county’s ongoing gridlock in addressing homelessness. Her opponent, Jessica Vega Pederson argues the office needs more investment.
Homelessness and housing affordability are dual crises and the next Multnomah County Board of Commissioners Chair will play a central role in shaping the county response to both.
As the chief executive officer of Multnomah County, the Chair oversees and administers all county programs except those under the sheriff, auditor, District Attorney and Commissioners, including the implementation of Multnomah County’s supportive housing services spending, funded for $52 million in 2022.
The Chair will also help direct the funding and implementation of the Joint Office of Homeless Services, the primary entity responsible for deploying services to address homelessness, funded for $255 million in 2023.
The Joint Office, while showing some results, faces mounting criticism from frustrated residents, homeless and housed alike, and growing signs of mismanagement. In May, All Good NW, contracted through the Joint Office for $12 million to oversee safe rest villages citywide, closed a village on the heels of employee unionization efforts and complaints of unsafe working conditions. The following month, an investigation found the agency bore primary responsibility for extreme negligence after allowing formerly homeless veterans to live in a dilapidated building — after spending $850,000 to house them there. In July, the Joint Office “improperly approved” $525,000 in unallowable expenses billed by All Good NW. The Joint Office recouped after a hotline tip prompted a city auditor investigation.
Jessica Vega Pederson
Jessica Vega Pederson was elected to serve as Multnomah County Commissioner for District 3 in 2016 and was re-elected in 2020. She is running for election as Chair of the Multnomah County Board of County Commissioners.
Vega Pederson served in the Oregon House of Representatives, representing District 47 as a Democrat from 2013 to 2017 and was the first Latina to serve in the Oregon House. She was Deputy Majority Whip and did not seek re-election.
Vega Pederson has a “housing affordability and houselessness” plan on her campaign site listing short-, medium- and long-term objectives. Among her goals, she wants to expand the existing shelter system, deploy alternative shelter models and enhance eviction protections.
“I think getting people into permanent housing has to be our North Star,” Vega Pederson said. “Having a place where people feel that they are safe, that they have stability, that they’re able to be here, I think is a critical thing.”
At the same time, Vega Pederson said, current need outpaces available housing, so shelters and transitional housing — executed in the best way possible — are a needed part of the response.
“We can’t wait for all of the housing that needs to be built,” Vega Pederson said. “We are not going to be able to change decades of underfunding in our housing market, especially along the more affordable levels, overnight. And knowing that, we also have to be investing smartly in transitional housing and shelter spaces.”
To do this, her plan would expand the existing shelter system, deploy alternative shelter models like safe rest villages or RV camping sites, and increase county access to empty apartment units. Vega Pederson said efforts to access unused apartments began through the Move-In Multnomah pilot program, which incentivizes landlords to make vacant apartments available by offering rent guarantees and damage compensation. Vega Pederson said she would review this pilot program and work to improve and expand it.
Vega Pederson is against implementing sweeps without providing support and alternative places for people to go.
“I think that without actual intervention, giving people options of where they can go, a place that is safe, a place where they have just as much of their own things, whether it’s a tent or their clothes — without doing that work, (sweeps) are not ethical,” Vega Pederson said.
While Vega Pederson’s opponent, Sharon Meieran, believes the Joint Office of Homeless Services should be “overhauled” to fix the county’s ongoing gridlock in addressing homelessness, Vega Pederson argues the office needs more investment.
Vega Pederson notes the Joint Office was a small team with significantly less resources until fiscal year 2022, when it was expanded to 70 full time employees and a beefed up budget.
“As Chair, I will prioritize the data analysis, research and information coordination and sharing needed to make sure Multnomah County is reaching its goal of providing shelter … and transparently sharing that information with the public,” Vega Pederson said.
Additional investment, Vega Pederson said, would allow increased information sharing, tracking services provided and outcomes. She proposes increasing accountability by holding monthly meetings to track progress and share it with the public.
“And then we need to be doing a better job of sharing that information and being transparent about it, making sure the community knows what’s happening, and what the results are,” Vega Pederson said.
The effort to balance the needs of homeless and housed residents will take more engagement from elected leaders, Vega Pederson said.
“We both have to be showing up a little bit better in this space, in terms of how we’re working with communities, how we’re working with neighborhoods,” Vega Pederson said.
The investment in communication with all stakeholders was pivotal to the Laurelwood Shelter’s success in the Foster-Powell Neighborhood, Vega Pederson said.
“And that has been working really well so far,” Vega Pederson said. “It just celebrated its three-year anniversary and served over 1,000 people, gotten over 300 people into permanent housing.”
Vega Pederson supports facilitating affordable housing developments by minimizing barriers for developers, and is looking at land use opportunities to facilitate new development.
“The county has a very strong role in housing, where we can make sure that the work that we’re doing, the resources that we have at our disposal, but also the resources that are being made at the state level at a scale that we haven’t seen before, are put into the community effectively,” Vega Pederson said.
Vega Pederson wants to enhance eviction protection efforts and said the county should inform people about resources and options before evictions.
“We need to make sure that we are providing resources to help with tenants who are facing eviction,” Vega Pederson said. “And we need to be getting those long-term rental assistance dollars out into the community, where they’re needed to prevent, really a tidal wave of people who are at risk.”
She also said looking at tenant protections and funding organizations providing housing assistance should be part of that effort.
Sharon Meieran is serving her second term representing District 1 on the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners and is running for election as Chair of the Multnomah County Board of County Commissioners.
Meieran practiced law for seven years before attending the University of California, San Francisco medical school. She became an emergency physician, later serving as the medical director for the Oregon Foundation for Reproductive Health.
Her plan for housing and homelessness lays out a multi-year framework emphasizing accountability and impact. Within a year she aims to develop a network of “microvillages, parking lots, larger villages and shelters” to provide “hygiene services, dignity and improved health and safety.” The plan would also establish a crisis task force to, according to Meieran, reduce harm for people living outside face and implement a “by name count” to better assess individuals and their needs.
Within five years, the plan aims to have the majority of homeless people housed, or with an individualized plan to get housing, while in the meantime providing supportive services.
Shelters are often not successful in the push to get people off the streets because homeless people often dislike them for personal, safety and logistical reasons, Meieran said.
“Many of them would say ‘we don’t want these indoor shelters,’ or ‘we feel unsafe,’ or ‘our stuff is stolen,’ or ‘we are treated like toddlers and given all these ridiculous rules,’” Meieran said. “It’s not rocket science to … get the information so we can build a system that people are comfortable with.”
Meieran’s proposal focuses on alternatives.
“My proposal is about distributed small sites, and then when we go to people and say, ‘oh, you can’t be on the sidewalk,’ … we (can) say, ‘no, you can’t be here, but here’s a menu of options,’” Meieran said, adding the county should help with the transition.
Meieran’s approach to homelessness centralizes resources to theoretically provide services more efficiently.
“There is a continuum of what people need in order to have a safe place to live and have a roof over their head,” Meieran said. “And if we have gaps in any aspect of that — and we do — then we’re going to fail in ultimately getting everyone the housing that they want.”
To facilitate cooperation from housed and unhoused residents, Meieran said she will invest in community engagement, something she believes the government has failed to do.
“Local governments have inflicted this on ourselves,” Meieran said. “It’s because they have not been responsive to people. We don’t answer phones, we don’t respond to emails, we don’t say the truth. We don’t listen to what people are saying, and that makes people super, super frustrated.”
Meieran’s plan lists improving the Joint Office of Homelessness Services, the partnership between the city of Portland and Multnomah County responsible for a suite of services to address homelessness, as a specific goal.
“I think there needs to be an overhaul,” Meieran said. “We’ve asked for an (organizational chart) forever, and I have not gotten anything that describes to me like, who people are, what they do, how different areas coordinate with one another. I don’t have a window into decision-making processes with the Joint Office.”
The lack of transparency is a problem for accountability, according to Meieran.
“We need someone to go through and develop a structure and system that is effective, that can deliver the services for the community and be held accountable,” Meieran said.
Meieren proposes evaluating the Joint Office and making recommendations. She also wants to develop “a public-facing dashboard with specific goals, timelines and expenditures clearly delineated,” and install an advisory and oversight body and provides a proposed model.
The advisory board would include workgroups with representatives of all relevant stakeholders, a coordinating board to integrate and implement workgroup input, an executive committee that would translate workgroup and coordinating board input into “policy and budget recommendations for elected bodies,” an oversight board, and several relevant committees.
Meieran is opposed to what she calls “true sweeps,” or sweeps in which a person is told to vacate a space without being provided with viable places where they can go and support for moving themselves and their belongings. She stopped short of saying she was opposed to sweeps outright.
Regarding housing, Meieran supports county-provided legal representation in eviction court, as well as rent caps but said it requires careful implementation.
“I do support rent caps,” Meieran said. “But I also see the unintended consequences that also have to be addressed.” (Meieran did not list what specific consequences may be.)
She supports affordable housing programs and rent assistance, but said current approaches fall short because the county implements projects at a small scale without a clear assessment of need.
“We need to be doing it in a cohesive way with, like, a plan and a goal and an understanding of the universe of need,” Meieran said. “We are building one building at a time or one housing unit at a time when we need an approach and to say, ‘Okay, how much money do we have for this? What do people need? And what is that bigger ecosystem where we can still fill in the gaps?’”
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