MultCo chair 'optimistic' on addressing homelessness, housing

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson took office in January and immediately got to work on Portland’s homeless problem as the county efforts Safe Rest Villages and investments in mental health services.

When it comes to tackling the county’s homeless crisis, Vega Pederson emphasizes the importance of city-county partnerships, like the Joint Office of Homeless Services “to really have the system work better together between investments the city was already making, and the county was already making.”

There are hundreds of millions of dollars going into the homeless services, Vega Pederson said, including funding from city and county general funds and the American Rescue Plan Act — which helped build shelters in the county.

“I came into this office knowing that housing and homelessness was going to be the number one priority that I wanted to work on, and I was committed to working in partnership with the city, with metro, with the state in addressing the issue,” Vega Pederson said.

Amid efforts to build Safe Rest Villages in the county, Commissioner Dan Ryan told KOIN 6 News last week, the opening of the Sunderland RV Park has been stalled amid negotiations between Multnomah County and the Salvation Army, which is set to be a service provider for the park.

“Sometimes it just takes time when the county’s negotiating with providers. No one gets more inpatient with that than I do,” Ryan said. “I’m really disappointed that it’s been open and ready since November yet we still don’t have people receiving those services.”

Despite the obstacle in opening the Sunderland Park, Vega Pederson says Safe Rest Villages are an important part of the shelter system by giving homeless Oregonians a place safe place to stay. She also noted that she toured the Menlo Park Safe Rest Village in East Portland and was impressed with the shelter.

“I think it’s a really good model, I think, you know, with the county in partnership with the city doing the work through the Joint Office and having that contract, we’re dedicated to really making sure that we can open up the Safe Rest Villages as well as all of the shelters at a very quick pace.”

She added, “we’ve had success doing that over the last few years, doubling the amount of shelters that we’ve had since before the pandemic and so I think we need to really focus on making sure we’re getting this open as quickly as possible.”

In addition to opening the park, Vega Pederson’s goal is to grow the number of shelter beds in the county, which she says totals 1,900.

“As I’m putting my budget together right now for the next fiscal year, that will start in July, I have a goal that we will have 2,400 shelter beds open and available for that next year,” Vega Pederson said.

On March 15, the Oregon House of Representatives passed a $200 million bill to address homelessness and the affordable housing shortage and is now in the Senate for consideration. The bill features a $130 million provision to fund Gov. Tina Kotek’s homelessness state of emergency.

“I’m really grateful and excited for what the legislature is doing and what they’re doing in response to Governor Tina Kotek’s executive orders, really addressing housing and homelessness,” Vega Pederson said — noting funds from the legislative package would go to Multnomah County for shelters, permanent housing and to prevent homelessness.

But shelter isn’t the only aspect of the homelessness crisis Vega Pederson is focused on. She says part of the county’s work includes providing mental and behavioral health services to the homeless.

“This is really a critical piece of how our systems are working together well to serve the people who most need it. And we know some of the people are most vulnerable are those people who are living unsheltered on our streets,” Vega Pederson said.

Currently, she says, those who are having a mental health crisis on the streets are sometimes taken to jail or the state hospital but there is no system in place to provide mental or behavioral health support.

Vega Pederson explained, “I’m a big supporter of things like Portland Street Response and having a non-law enforcement way of getting people help that they need when they’re in crisis.”

She also says the county is investing in mental health services and highlighted downtown Portland’s Behavioral Health Resource Center that opened in December.

“This is something we’ve never had before. It is a place for people to go, people who are experiencing some of the biggest levels of crisis to go to have a safe space to have stability, to have access to things like laundry and showers,” Vega Pederson said.

Come spring, Vega Pederson claims the county will open more shelters and transitional housing for those who are coming out of recovery.

“I’m very optimistic about the work that is happening now and the partnership that is happening now between the county, between the city, between the governor’s office. There is a huge commitment to work together to address this problem,” Vega Pederson said.

“With the resources that we have through the Supportive Housing Services Measure, with the commitment that we have to address this problem, the work that I’m doing right now and looking at some of the challenges that currently exist in our system; how we are collecting data, what data we’re collecting, the consistency of the outreach that is happening, how successful we are in bringing people safely off the street, getting people into housing, staying into housing. Those are all of the things that I’m focused on, making sure that we are being transparent with the public in the work that is happening and that is something that I think that shared information and that shared commitment is going to make a big difference.”

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