Despite influx of funds fighting homelessness in Portland metro area, hurdles remain for some

Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties have collected a combined $300 million and counting in tax revenue, according to Metro, since early 2021 to fight
Published: Sep. 6, 2023 at 9:15 AM PDT
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PORTLAND, Ore. (KPTV) - Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties have collected a combined $300 million and counting in tax revenue, according to Metro, since early 2021 to fight homelessness. While there are success stories, obstacles remain for some who need help.

Back in May 2020, voters in the Metro area approved Measure 26-210, a new 1% income tax on those making above $125,000 per year, couples filing jointly with income above $200,000 per year, and businesses with gross revenue above $5 million per year, all funding Supportive Housing Services

The tax started getting collected through the Metro government in 2021, and according to data from all three counties, the funds have placed nearly 5,000 people into housing, and prevented over 16,300 evictions.

In Multnomah County, the most recent Point in Time Count survey conducted in Jan. 2023 found 6,297 people experiencing homelessness.

Despite a surge in funds for Multnomah County, a Metro spokesperson says Multnomah County did not spend all of its budgeted Supportive Housing Services funds in the past fiscal year. According to Metro, Multnomah County budgeted over $127 million for Supportive Housing Services program costs in Fiscal Year 2023, but underspent by $45 million. These funds, according to the spokesperson, will carry over to next fiscal year. Back in August, Metro and Multnomah County agreed on a corrective action plan to ensure funds are used in a more timely fashion in the future.

Staff in Portland and Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services say they are hopeful that more help will come faster with the help of revenue from Metro’s Supportive Housing Services tax.

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But for Southeast Portland resident Ryan Mikesell, having housing again has been over a decade in the making. He has been housed in an affordable housing unit for a little over a year, but 13 years prior to that, he lived on the streets of Portland in an RV with his dogs. Mikesell says it took him a decade to get on a waitlist for an affordable housing unit, and another three years to secure his apartment. Mikesell says in 2007, he started receiving disability benefits after physical and mental injuries from an abusive childhood made it difficult for him to keep a job.

“Untreated injuries from childhood abuse; what happens is you get arthritis from being knocked around,” said Mikesell. “So when I was 27, I had x-rays and they told me my arthritis was so bad, I looked like I was 70.”

After a breakup with a partner in 2009, an estranged relationship with abusive family members, and nothing to survive on except $600 a month in disability benefits, Mikesell began living on the streets of Multnomah County. He says over the years his disability payments increased to a little under $1000 a month, but it never was enough.

“We don’t have any choice. If we don’t have family who can take us in and help support us, we’re on the street.”

For a decade, Mikesell says he tried to get on waitlists for affordable housing complexes, but there simply were no spots available. He says he became more hopeful in 2020 when voters approved the Metro Supportive Housing Services Tax, dramatically increasing the amount of funding available to expand rent assistance and permanent housing to those in the Metro Area who need it most. To date, those taxes have generated over $140 million alone for Multnomah County.

In 2021, Mikesell reached out for help through Multnomah County Coordinated Access, a program designed to help house the most vulnerable populations living on the streets.

But after an evaluation, he was told he wasn’t eligible because he did not have a high enough ‘vulnerability score.’ This, despite being disabled and homeless.

“The girl told me that people have to have 20 or 21 points, and I had 14,” said Mikesell. “They want you to destroy your life to get enough points on that application. You get points if you’re a criminal, you get points if you owe court fines, you get points if you’re a sex worker, you get points if you’re a drug addict.”

Mikesell has a GoFundMe set up for financial assistance.

Erin Pidot is a program manager at Portland and Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services. She helps oversee Coordinated Access and works on expanding Supportive Housing Services in the county. She says she and her team understand there are a great number of people who need help but may not qualify for Coordinated Access. Pidot says there are other resources available.

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“If you aren’t already connected to an organization that’s supporting you with housing, search and placement, supporting you to connect you to resources that you need to resolve your homelessness, I would start with (calling) 211, or one of the other access points in the community,” said Pidot. “It could be a day center, a shelter. Outreach teams are making a relationship with folks on the street every day who can support people through this navigation process. So I would really encourage folks to build a relationship with an organization.”

There are several dozen nonprofits and agencies in Multnomah County contracted with the joint office to use Metro’s Supportive Housing Services funds. Pidot says if someone is not eligible for Coordinated Access, then these organizations can provide rent assistance or other supportive housing help.

A list of those organizations and agencies can be found here.

Reaching out to these organizations and agencies is an avenue Portland resident, Michelle Mei, has taken in recent years, but she has not had quite the success she needs after trying to get back on her feet.

“I have been housing insecure since 2018 when I was fleeing a domestic violent relationship with my ex-husband, and was suffering from some mental and physical health issues, and at the time I was couch surfing with a friend of mine and trying to get help.”

Like Mikesell, Mei only has as about $1000 in disability benefits per month to survive on. She was diagnosed with cerebrovascular disease in 2014, a disease that affects blood flow in the brain, which Mei says causes her dizziness, trouble concentrating, and chronic fatigue, which prevents her from working. Mei says during the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment benefits combined with disability benefits allowed her to get her own housing and barely get by while still seeking long-term rent assistance. But since pandemic unemployment benefits have now ended, she is constantly behind on rent, and has gone from nonprofit to nonprofit in Multnomah County to try and get long-term help, only to be told she is not eligible because her situation is not dire enough.

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“I’m 62, I’m permanently disabled, I have no money, I’m low income, proved low income. I’m on food stamps, I’m on Medicare,” she said. “You just think, am I going to spend the rest of my life every month trying to stay housed? And borrowing money from people I have to pay back?”

Back at the Joint Office, Erin Pidot says the overall goal is to connect as many people as possible to housing or rent assistance, but she says permanent supportive housing resources are limited. Pidot does feel optimistic about the future, because of the large influx of Metro Supportive Housing Services tax dollars.

“The Joint Office has been working with our partners to significantly expand a large range of resources, including rapid rehousing and other permanent housing options for people who may not have that acute vulnerability that’s going to get someone into supportive housing, but like you said, are really low income, can’t afford market rate rent, and need support in order to be stably housed,” said Pidot.

Pidot also says her team at the Joint Office is working on developing a more Multnomah County-specific evaluating tool for Coordinated Access, in the hopes that the help Coordinated Access provides can be expanded to more people as more resources become available.