Called Out, Saltzman Now Seeking Up to $1.7 Million for Homelessness

From The Portland Mercury, August 28, 2013

Commissioner Dan Saltzman‘s rapid education as the new overseer of the Portland Housing Bureau is continuing apace.

After taking flak in a Mercury story this week for letting Mayor Charlie Hales drive a seemingly big-stick-tiny-carrot approach to homelessness—and talking up an idea, $250,000 for shelters, that better-versed advocates quickly panned—Saltzman went on KGW yesterday to take credit for a broader-based package of reforms that he now says could pour up to $1.7 million into safety net programs.

He said the new money could come as early as next month. Saltzman didn’t get into this, but likely sources could include the city’s contingency fund, which Hales doubled in his budget to $3 million, or new revenue. The city budget office could have good news when it revises its forecasts next month.

Saltzman’s announcement came during a lengthy sitdown on “Straight Talk” that was recorded Friday and aired yesterday. It came after his chief of staff and, for the first time, Commissioner Nick Fish were invited to one of Hales’ informal information-gathering sessions on homelessness. (Invitations that magically came down a day after Fish first went public with his distaste for the status quo on Blogtown, and the same day our story ran.)

And the contours of Saltzman’s plan, submitted to Hales, at his request, in a memo late last week, sound a lot like what was hashed out at that city hall powwow. Talk of shelters, also previously mentioned by Hales as a bone to throw, was played down in light of something advocates say is much more cost-effective and beneficial: rental assistance and housing specialists.

“I’d have them sleeping in an apartment of their own,” Saltzman said when reporter Reggie Aqui asked where people sleeping outside could go if they’re not allowed to camp. “That’s one of the things we’re investing our resources in. Housing specialists…. If we can get them into an apartment and get them services to be successful, 70 to 80 percent are still housed even a year later.”

He also said “shelters are not the end-all solution by any means.”

Those well-calibrated statements suggest Saltzman has done quite a bit of studying in the past week or so.

When I sat down with him on August 9, his embrace of rental assistance was limited and he tried to put some distance between the kind of supportive services he discussed on KGW—mental health and addiction treatment, vocational training—and the housing bureaus mission. He said some of that is better provided by the county or city’s general fund. He also said Hales’ political strategy of pushing first with enforcement before coming forward with resources—something that blew up last week—was “sound.”

Saltzman, during that interview, said “one of his first priorities” was to “expand our shelter capacity and other rental assistance for homeless women in particular.”

He also said some people “aren’t going to avail themselves of shelter, even if we had unlimited capacity. Having said that, the mayor did mention finding additional resources to shelter. I’ll be talking to him next week about what his thoughts are so we can come up with some kind of strategy.”

Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury, leading efforts to streamline regional spending on housing and homelessness, publicly shared her distaste for that idea when I interviewed her. Advocates and staffers also pushed against it hard during the meeting with Hales last week.

Saltzman’s statements on KGW—a promise of additional city resources—also reflect a shift in his understanding of the housing bureau’s budget. He told me that he was miffed when social services advocates mounted a campaign for safety net funding this spring, a year after Fish and former Mayor Sam Adams worked out a deal that converted $4.6 million in housing funds from onetime money to ongoing money.

“I’m not convinced everything in the safety net is truly the safety net,” he said. “Suddenly we find out in this budget process that, well, [the $4.6 million,] that’s not enough for the safety net. My question is what’s enough? And what constitutes the safety net?”

Of course, that wasn’t the case. The funding campaign wasn’t about adding more money to housing. It was about persuading Hales and the city council not to burden it with the same 10 percent cuts other bureaus were being asked to contemplate. It was a successful campaign. The housing bureau was held harmless when it came to local money.

“Is that what they’re saying?” he asked me when I relayed that after saying I was confused.

So it was quite surprising, one week later, to see Saltzman on TV as the face of a new revenue push from city hall, pitching a sum that’s nearly half of that $4.6 million. Saltzman also was asked about Fish’s comments on Blogtown, which called Hales’ compassion into question, among some other ungentle prods.

“All of us are filled with compassion for people who are homeless,” Saltzman said. “We are very compassionate. What you’re seeing a little bit is the issue of a mayor to reassert the city’s right to keep the sidewalks clear and to have no sleeping in our parks.”

He said he could understand, when asked by [KGW’s Reggie] Aqui, why the city’s approach so far—all sidewalk and camping enforcement—might seem like it wasn’t compassionate. But he followed that up.

“I also understand that some people want to know their sidewalks are going to be clear,” he said. “I guarantee you people do not want people sleeping in the parks. It may sound good in the abstract. But once a camp is established in the park in your neighborhood, you’ll be on the phone to my office or to someone in the mayor’s office saying ‘do something about this.'”