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Wheeler questions plan for Terminal 1 homeless center

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Mayor-elect also says he can't support Measure 97

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler spoke to the Portland Business Alliance at its monthly breakfast forum on Wednesday. Oregon Historical Society Executive Director Kerry Tymchuk (background) served as moderator.Although Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler says the homeless crisis will be his top priority when he takes office in January, he is not yet ready to endorse the idea of building a large homeless multi-service center at Terminal 1 in Northwest Portland.

In fact, Wheeler told the Portland Business Alliance on Wednesday morning, he does not know what the proposal entails and questioned why the City Council approved a lease for the first phase of the project proposed by developer Homer Williams in August.

“We started with a location and I don’t know what ‘it’ is yet. We need a consensus about what the model is we’re trying to locate. We need to figure out what gaps we currently have in our system. … Once we figure that out, we need to build a census about how to support it. That’s called a plan,” said Wheeler, who is currently the state treasurer.

Wheeler made his comments days after returning from a tour of Williams’ model for the project, the Haven for Hope in San Antonio, Texas. Wheeler said he was impressed with all of the services offered at the 22-acre campus-like facility, especially the covered outdoor camping area called the Courtyard where the homeless can sleep in a sheltered setting where food, toilets, showers and a kennel are available. But Wheeler also said he believes many of the facility's other services already exist in Portland, including residential detox programs.

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Williams’ proposal is called the Oregon Harbor of Hope. Executive Director Don Mazziotti says he is puzzled by Wheeler’s comments because the mayor-elect and members of his staff have been briefed on it several times. The first phase is a temporary homeless shelter to be opened in a warehouse at Terminal 1. The second phase is a permanent multi-service center modeled after the Haven for Hope.

“I can’t speak for him, but we’ve gone over it with him a number of times. If he needs additional information, we’ll get it to him,” said Mazziotti, who went to san Antonio with Wheeler, Commissioner Steve Novick, Commissioner Dan Saltzman’s Chief of Staff Brendan Finn, and Wheeler’s designated Chief of Staff Maurice Henderson.

Commissioner Nick Fish, who opposes the proposal, welcomed Wheeler's comments, however.

“I am pleased that Mayor-elect Wheeler shares my concerns with the siting of a mass shelter at Terminal One North. I agree with him that Council put the cart before the horse. I looking forward to working with Ted to design a Portland solution to our housing crisis,” Fish said.

The lease approved by the council on Aug. 10 for the first phase of the project is still being negotiated between the Bureau of Environmental Service, which owns Terminal 1, and the Portland Housing Bureau, which is negotiating a sub-lease for the shelter with the Oregon Harbor of Hope. Williams said last week he has raised $300,000 of the $500,000 necessary to open the shelter for six months.

Regardless of whether he eventually supports Williams’ proposal, Wheeler says Portland, Multnomah County, the business community and the philanthropic community must all do more to reduce homelessness.

“We have an obvious and severe homeless crisis. It’s a humanitarian crisis, a health crisis, a livability crisis, a public safety crisis, and it impacts the economy. We all have a stake in it,” Wheeler said.

In his first major appearance since being elected mayor at the primary election, Wheeler responded spoke at the PBA’s monthly breakfast forum. He did not deliver any opening remarks but responded to questions from Oregon Historical Society Executive Director Kerry Tymchuk, who served as moderator, and members of the audience. Because of that, Wheeler did not lay out of list of specific proposals he will pursue in office, like mayors traditionally do in their annual State of the City speeches.

Joking about the number of serious problems facing Portland, Wheeler said friends are giving him their condolences for winning the election.

“Now I know what it’s like to be walking to the chair,” said Wheeler, who insisted he is excited about taking office on Jan. 1, 2017.

Among other things, Wheeler blamed Mayor Charlie Hales and the council provoking some of the protests that shut down City Hall in recent weeks. Although Wheeler said Portland has a long tradition of protests, he faulted Hales and the council for repeatedly appearing to make important decisions behind closed doors without sufficient public involvement. Protesters shut down council meetings and clashed with police before and after the council approved the newest contact with the Portland Police Association last week.

“City Hall has been unnecessarily closed. Too many decision are being made behind closed doors. It’s not the kind of involvement the public expects from the mayor or city council,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler said his second priority will be addressing the high cost of living in Portland.

“Wages are stagnant and the cost of housing is going up. People are afraid they are being priced out of Portland. We need to create more supply, and the city has an important role to play there,” Wheeler said.

In response to a related question, Wheeler said he will lobby the 2017 Oregon legislature to life the statewide prohibition on local measures to control rents and prohibit no-cause evictions. Although Wheeler said he does not support “New York or San Francisco-style rent control,” he said cities should be allowed to debate and adopt their own policies, arguing that compromises can be struck by bringing all stakeholders to the table.

Wheeler said his third priority will be investments in infrastructure, including the transportation system and public schools. Wheeler said he will lobby the 2013 Oregon Legislature to pass a new transportation funding plan and change the distribution of stated gas tax revenues to give cities more than the current 20 percent. And he said the city has a role to play in the public school system because it will benefit from better educated students graduating high rates.

And, in response to a question, Wheeler told the PBA he would have a hard time voting for Measure 97, the corporate sales tax measure on the Nov. 8 general election ballot. He cited a Legislative Fiscal Office report that said it will increase household costs an average of $600 a year and reduce private sector employment.

"I'm in favor of increasing economic opportunity for everyone," Wheeler said.

Supporters of Measure 97 say it will raise $3 billion a year from large corporation to increase finding for schools and social services. Opponents say it will hurt smaller Oregon businesses, too, and the Legislature can spend the money elsewhere.

For a previous story about the Terminal 1 proposal and Haven for Hope tour, go to portlandtribune.com/pt/9-news/327751-206747-wheeler-novick-tour-texas-model-for-homeless-center.