In December, Multnomah County opened a new Behavioral Health Resource Center near the corner of Oak and Park downtown. The Center’s designated purpose is needed and laudable: to provide behavioral health respite and referral for persons experiencing mental health and substance abuse issues. Over the course of the first month of operation, it quickly became apparent that the center is bringing unintended consequences to the area, as street camping and drug-dealing in the immediate vicinity have dramatically increased. Business owners, neighborhood leaders, and the Behavioral Health Task Force have are encouraging the county to put in place a security plan and a community agreement to mitigate the negative impacts the Center on surrounding businesses and their visitors. RPC’s Erik Cole testified before the Multnomah County Commission on January 26 along with other stakeholders including the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association.
The following is the transcribed testimony:
January 26th Meeting of the Multnomah County Commission Testimony from Erik Cole, Revitalize Portland Coalition Topic: Community & Business Concerns About Unintended Consequences Around the County’s Behavioral Health Resource Center (BHRC)
Chairperson Vega Pedersen and Commissioners,
Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you today. My name is Erik Cole and I’m here on behalf of The Revitalize Portland Coalition. We are a coalition of over 20 commercial real estate organizations and businesses representing over 8000 members across Oregon.
RPC is the collective voice of Portland commercial real estate focused on providing feedback and advising public officials on issues of public safety, homelessness, livability, and economic vitality. First off all, thank you Chairperson Pederson for joining us for our monthly membership meeting in December. Our members appreciated your time and the opportunity to engage with you. We agree with you that there is a feeling of change in the air right now and that this is a good time to “reset relationships and bring fresh eyes and perspectives to both challenges and opportunities.”
This morning you have heard and seen evidence of the acute situation at the BHRC. From a diverse group of stakeholders. I need not recount the human crisis we face. Nor do I have time today to recount the lived-experience of our members and their employees who also cannot escape the human crisis of unsheltered homelessness happening on our streets today. They compassionately interact with people experiencing homelessness but they get as frustrated as those who are unsheltered with navigating the tangled web of services and benefits.
Our Homelessness Subcommittee has adopted several priorities we think will help but most importantly, I’m here to ask for urgency, collaboration and coordination.
Let us help. RPC stands ready and willing to work with you on these issues and ideas. Just this week, I’ve had members approach me with vacant land suitable for building housing.
1. Rapidly improve shelter referral and access with effective coordination & accountability. Portland needs to urgently improve the security and potential of people living outside. We also recommend expansion of diverse emergency shelter options.
2. Assure that all of the public money going into homelessness adds up to better outcomes – for everyone.
3. Use the Built for Zero methodology to get a handle on and monitor inflow and outflow of people experiencing homelessness and then swiftly act on the specified population.
But we would ask that government commit to working in partnership with the private sector to find solutions. We need transparency: What is the plan? How is public money being spent? And bottom line: are we seeing results? That our inflow (new people becoming unhoused) is dropping, and our outflow (to shelter and housing) is picking up.
One of the great frustrations is that this situation could have been avoided. Many of the issues described here today were predicted by the stakeholder group of concerned neighbors and businesses. That the County chose the location, commissioned the project, and paid for the construction then disregarded the external consequences to the community is unacceptable. The County cannot drop this project into the neighborhood and then wash its hands of the substantial difficulties and danger to the public.
Again, we need a plan. We recognize the serious gaps in access to mental health, addiction and recovery services in Oregon. However, the unintended consequences of the BHRC opening speaks to the urgent need for greater shelter options in downtown. We recommend RAPID expansion of diverse emergency shelter options – including safe rest villages, utilizing excess buildings, hotel conversions etc. and we can help with that.
For a pretty good local example of close cooperation and coordination between sectors, we need look no further than the transformation of the County's Wapato jail into the Bybee Lakes Hope Center. When city, county, and the private sector came together, we were able to bring a residential treatment center online. Now, folks who have been through basic drug treatment and are in recovery can complete their reentry into society with a job leading to housing. Our members stand ready and willing to work with you on projects that will pencil out. We have expertise in property development, financing, and property management that could be valuable to this work.
I’ve done some consulting with cities and counties over the years and learned one thing: Success happens when a city figures out how to function as a SYSTEM. A system of services and not just a loose collection of programs. That step starts with governments being on the same page. And willing to collaborate.
While the county may have many resources and the expertise to run the BHRC, it can’t operate alone. Local service providers, shelters, faith-based organizations, and neighborhoods organizations have so much to offer – if they are included.
We’ll get there by working together, not at cross-purposes.You have an opportunity before you, to use collective decision-making to set better policies.We would ask that government commit to working in partnership with the private sector on problem solving and implementation.
Thank you for your time.