Ben Botkin

(Oregon Capital Chronicle) More than two dozen Oregon mayors want the state to provide consistent, ongoing money to cities to address the state’s homelessness crisis.

In a news conference on Monday, they said they hope to persuade the Legislature next year to allocate nearly $125 million, which would be distributed statewide based on the population. From there, they want cities to continue to receive annual funding.

The money would allow local officials to use the money as they deem necessary based on local needs. Cities could staff homelessness outreach programs, stock food pantries, clean homeless camps or invest in affordable housing. Separately, they plan to develop a request for up to $175 million for shelter and housing projects statewide.

They said they need consistent, annual funding so cities can be nimble and flexible as they respond to the state’s growing homelessness crisis.

The Oregon Mayors Association homelessness task force, with input from 25 mayors, developed the bipartisan proposal. The group represents urban centers like Portland and Eugene as well as small, rural communities like Hermiston and Vale. Tent cities with homeless people are a visible reminder of the crisis in Oregon’s urban areas, but homelessness also runs throughout the state’s mid-sized and rural communities.

“When it comes to Oregon’s homeless crisis, we must ensure the state funding can reach all corners of the state,” said Vale Mayor Tom Vialpando.

Homelessness is a key issue among candidates running for election Nov. 8, with Republicans bashing Oregon’s Democratic leadership for the problem. On any day as of January 2020, nearly 14,700 people in Oregon had no stable housing, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homeless. The group estimates about 4,300 were chronically homeless.

“We need funds that we can put to work as quickly as possible,” Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis said.

Here’s how it would work: Each city would get $40 per resident, with small communities guaranteed to receive at least $50,000.

The mayors said cities need funding they can depend on – and flexibility to use it based on local circumstances. Rather than a one-size-fits-all program, the money could go toward whatever cities determine is necessary. They want cities to have the flexibility to spend the money by working with community groups and advocates and shift tactics as needs evolve.

For Oregon’s small cities, the funding mechanism would be fairer than competitive grants for homelessness programs that favor larger cities with high profiles.

“All cities have residents struggling,” said Dayton Mayor Beth Wytoski, stressing that direct funding is key for cities to have flexibility.

City leaders say the annual funding would eliminate uncertainty that often surrounds grant-funded homelessness programs that may only have money for a limited period of time. With annual funding, a program can be discontinued – or a new one started without the need to apply for competitive grants.

In Eugene, efforts to combat homelessness include the establishment of designated “safe sleep sites” where people can pitch tents and sleep in vehicles legally.

“The danger that we’re facing is that without continued financial support from the state, we won’t be able to sustain the work that we’ve done,” Vinis said.

A nonpartisan issue

Mayors say the issue is nonpartisan and not tied to any political party or ideology. A recent survey reflects that. Thirty-seven percent of 1,878 Oregonians surveyed identified the state’s homelessness crisis as the state’s most pressing issue, according to a survey by the Portland-based nonpartisan Oregon Values and Beliefs Center.

Oregon’s next Legislature and governor will play a critical role in whether the proposal moves forward. Mayors have shared their proposal with each of the three gubernatorial candidates and legislative leaders.

“I’m looking forward to partnering with mayors across the state to take on our homelessness crisis on day one – and I will hold everyone accountable for delivering results,” said Tina Kotek, former House speaker and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, in a statement.

Republican candidate Christine Drazan, former House minority leader, has criticized Democratic leaders, including Kotek, for the homelessness crisis.

“Christine Drazan will declare a homeless state of emergency to unlock all tools available to ensure homelessness is rare and temporary,” said John Burke, a spokesperson for Drazan’s campaign. “She looks forward to partnering and supporting local governments in their shared mission to get people off the street and into safe housing.”

Independent gubernatorial candidate Betsy Johnson said the state needs to “end inhumane, dangerous tent cities all across Oregon.” Her campaign didn’t directly indicate whether it’s open to the plan, but acknowledged that areas outside the Portland region need more help.

“Counties and cities outside the Portland tri-county area will need more financial support from the state to address homelessness,” Johnson said. “However, any distribution of funds would need to be through an objective process that doesn’t disadvantage small cities and there need to be real, measurable deliverables.”