PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Commissioner Dan Saltzman has directed the Portland Housing Bureau to waive city development charges for a small church-based organization hoping to expand its North Portland homeless shelter.
Saltzman oversees the Housing Bureau, which denied the break last week, saying in a March 17 letter, “After reviewing the application materials submitted, PHB is unable to approve application exemptions for the project due to the shelter’s religious-based services and programming.”
The bureau’s decision was based on advice from the city attorney’s office, which had said the organization’s programming violated the Oregon Constitution’s separation between church and state.
However, after a Monday meeting with senior city attorneys, Saltzman reversed the decision. He based his decision in part on the fact that the city previously has partly funded homeless and affordable housing projects by other religious organizations, including the Salvation Army, the Union Gospel Mission and Catholic Charities.
The City Council also declared a Housing State of Emergency last October intended to create more shelter space and affordable housing projects.
“The commissioner wants the city to do everything possible to help the homeless and low-income families,” says Brendan Finn, Saltzman’s chief of staff.
The Community of Hope has been financially challenged in recent months by city fees and construction requirements. Although all fees and requirements have been reduced or waived, the organization is still facing tens of thousands of dollars in city-imposed costs, including system development charges (SDCs) totaling more than $20,000.
After a March 8 Portland Tribune story on the situation, the organization was informed it could apply to have all of the city SDCs waived under a program administered by the Portland Housing Bureau to encourage the construction of affordable housing, including new shelters. The program recently was used to reduce costs for a shelter for women and children opened by Human Solutions in a former strip club in Southeast Portland.
But after the Community of Hope submitted some preliminary paperwork, it was notified that it does not qualify for the program.
“After reviewing the application materials submitted, PHB is unable to approve SDC exemptions of the project due to the shelter’s religious-based services and programming,” says the March 17 letter signed by Portland Housing Bureau program coordinator Dory Van Bockel.
The Community of Hope is part of AllOne Community Services, a nonprofit organization founded by the Church of North Portland, a coalition of dozens of churches in the area. Plans call for expanding the shelter from about 15 to around 34 people.
Community of Hope Executive Director Linda Jo Devlaeminick says the only religious programming at the shelter is a mandatory trauma recovery course she teaches to clients that includes Bible quotes along with psychological advice. Devlaeminick says she drops the Bible quotes if any of the clients object.
Other faith-based organizations are receiving funds from both Portland and Multnomah County to support their homeless programs, including the Salvation Army. The Portland Development Commission helped finance the Union Gospel Mission’s building in Old Town. A representative of the downtown Baptist Church even sits on the coordinating committee of A Home for Everyone, a city-county initiative to cut the homeless population in half by 2019.
Devlaeminick had said she hoped the Housing Bureau would reverse its stance after learning more about how the shelter operates.
“If what we’re going through can help other organizations, then it will be worth it,” Devlaeminick says.
The initial rejection came as Portland and Multnomah County have been increasing spending on homeless programs after declaring housing emergencies.
Last Wednesday, the City Council approved spending $2.75 million on homeless services. The money is in addition to $2.26 million the council spent last October.
Most of the original appropriation went to open two temporary homeless shelters, one in Southwest Portland and one downtown. The largest portion of the additional money — $1.29 million — will go to pay some of their opening and operating costs. Both shelters required improvements to open and need ongoing staffing, maintenance and repairs to function.
Mayor Charlie Hales said some of the additional money will be spent on “deliberate experimentation” to help determine the best ways to reduce homelessness. A number of the services are modeled after those in other cities.
“We are trying some things out that we’re learning from other cities. Some of them are going to work, some of them aren’t,” Hales said.
The next day, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners approved spending $5.7 million on homeless and affordable housing services. Of that amount, $1 million is requested for housing assistance for homeless families, domestic violence survivors, homeless youth, homeless veterans and related services.
The remaining $4.7 million will help fulfill Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury’s promise to appropriate $10 million to A Home for Everyone next year.
Hales has promised $20 million in city funds for the city-county initiative, and he has asked all general fund agencies to propose 5 percent budget reductions to help free up the money.
A recent analysis by the City Budget Office questioned whether A Home for Everyone’s goal of cutting homelessness in half by 2019 is realistic. In a review of the housing bureau’s next budget request, budget analysts said the actual cost of such a reduction is not the $30 million Hales and Kafoury promised to spend next year, but $73 million over three years. And analysts said the homeless population probably is increasing faster than predicted because of the increasing housing costs the council is trying to address.
The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media affiliate.