Multnomah County government purchased more than 22,000 tents and more than 69,000 tarps for the homeless over the past two years.
Most have been distributed by the Joint Office of Homeless Services throughout the county at a cost of more than $2 million.
The purchases were intended to help the homeless survive the COVID-19 pandemic when social distancing restrictions reduced shelter space. Other supplies to ease outdoor living included sleeping bags, blankets and other provisions. At the height of the pandemic, homeless camp sweeps were suspended on the advice of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"With public buildings, day centers, libraries, even coffee shops closed, and shelters operating at reduced capacity to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the JOHS used relief funds to provide emergency supplies to people to be able to survive outside until vaccines and reopening," said county spokesperson Julie Sullivan-Springhetti.
But an attorney representing disabled Portlanders believes the purchases heavily contributed to the proliferation of homeless encampments that have blocked sidewalks for years. Local attorney John DiLorenzo has filed a federal lawsuit to compel the city to remove the tents on sidewalks for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. He also wants the joint office to stop replacing them.
"Through a combination of stubbornness, incompetence and lack of coordination with the city, the JOHS has created a counterproductive policy and colossal waste of tax payer resources as the city sweeps what the County puts in place. The city should terminate its relationship with the JOHS and, instead, use its dues to finance its shelter first policy and keep the sidewalks clear of obstructions so those with disabilities can have their lives back," DiLorenzo said.
DiLorenzo obtained the details of the purchases by subpoenaing the county as part of his lawsuit. According to DiLoren-zo, documents provided by the county reveal that 22,700 tents were purchased at a cost of $1.6 million between June 9, 2020, and Sept. 6, 2022. The county purchased 69,514 tarps at a cost of $416,053 between June 9, 2020, and July 1, 2021.
Supplies for homeless
Most of the funding came from the federal government as part of its Covid-relief spending.
The supplies were distributed from two county warehouse to over 100 organizations, which provided them to the homeless. To make sure the supplies were distributed throughout the county, it was divided it into 37 zones, with organizations designated to cover each of them. Severe heat and cold supplies also are distributed through the district system.
County records show some of the organizations who first checked out supplies were nonprofits, including Outside In and Sisters of the Road. Others were unincorporated mutual aid organizations. A few individuals also checked out supplies. The system was changed in June 2021 to restrict the supplies to nonprofit organizations.
According to Sullivan-Springhetti, the distribution efforts were not intended to continue indefinitely at that level. Funding for the purchases was reduced from $3.1 million to $1.2 million in the budget that took effect on July 1 of this year. In August, the organizations were notified by email that they could not visit the warehouse as often. Limits also were placed on the number of supplies they could pick up at each visit.
"We continue to offer life-saving supplies during weather events, as well as work with groups all year to assist those still facing exposure daily as staff and budget allows," Sullivan-Springhetti said.
The reductions prompted complaints from some of the organizations, however.
"These are things that people need to stay healthy and survive," Sandra Comstock, executive director of Hygiene4All, said in an Aug. 16, 2022, Portland Tribune story. "Giving these things to people isn't just a benefit for people living on the streets, it's a benefit for the broader general public when we're not flooding the emergency room with things that could be handled with small preventative measures."
On Nov. 21, Comstock told KGW-TV News, "Honestly, it's pretty demoralizing to be out here telling people, 'I'm sorry, we don't have these things.'"
"The taxpayers have spent at least $2 million dollars acquiring tents and tarps which have ended up on Portland streets and sidewalks. Up until mid-2021 there were no controls whatsoever imposed by the Joint Office over the distribution of these tents and tarps. And today there are still few controls and no direction from the Joint Office to the multitudes of non-profits involved in the distribution chain to keep tents off the sidewalks," DiLorenzo said.
As previously reported by the Portland Tribune, DiLorenzo originally believed the county had purchased a total of 6,500 tents and 27,000 tarps.