Dec. 19: Taking action to honor the memories of the people we’ve lost to homelessness

Dear friends and neighbors,

Whether you think of it as the official start of winter or the winter solstice, the night of this coming Monday, Dec. 21 will be the longest night of the year. And on that night, I encourage you to take time to remember and grieve for our many neighbors who lost their lives over the course of this exceedingly difficult year while living outside.

Across the nation, countless others will also partake in National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, an observance to bring light, commemoration and reflection to the tragic darkness of these preventable, needless deaths.

We can remember those who passed by speaking their names.

We can pay our respects by learning and sharing their stories, and acknowledging their struggles.

We can honor their memories by taking action to support our efforts to help our neighbors experiencing homelessness.

In 2018, I joined dozens of community members in Southeast Portland at the Vigil of Remembrance and Solidarity to commemorate National Homeless Persons Memorial Day.
We can all reflect on and recommit ourselves to the work that is left to do — the work that we, as a community, must share together — so that this year’s remembrance is among the last of these kinds of vigils.

And while this year has been marked by profound and widespread loss, it’s also been shaped by our community’s capacity to be moved to action. That holds especially true for Multnomah County’s commitment to investing in tools that we know are effective in helping people at risk of, or experiencing, homelessness. 

This past Thursday’s Board of County Commissioner meeting proved to be a monumental day for our ongoing work around housing and homelessness. The actions we took highlighted all the work we’ve been moved to do — actions across the continuum of services and strategies that the County leverages to prevent and end homelessness — in order to provide stability, shelter and housing services.

First, we voted to extend the County emergency declaration to July 2, 2021, which allows us to maintain the expanded set of tools that we've used — and will continue to use — to respond quickly to the emerging needs brought on by the pandemic. This is the fourth time the Board has extended the state of emergency, an acknowledgement that the health, safety and well-being of our community, and especially the most vulnerable, continue to be threatened by COVID-19.

Extending the state of emergency also extends the moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent in Multnomah County to July 2 and keeps the six-month grace period that starts after the moratorium expires. However, I'm hopeful that the Oregon Legislature will extend the statewide moratorium when they convene for a special session on Monday.

But the fact of the matter is that moratoriums are temporary by design, only postponing a debt that will eventually come due. On Thursday night, I testified in front of the Legislature (virtually) to voice my support for a rent assistance package that will help renters catch up on and pay off rent that has accrued during the pandemic. I also expressed my support for the concept of a compensation fund that could expedite direct assistance to small landlords, many of whom have also been significantly harmed by the pandemic.

Our eviction moratorium and repayment grace period have also been critical for the County to make the most use of the $12 million in rent relief dollars that we have received through the CARES Act. We’ve partnered with an established and trusted network of community-based organizations, then expanded it, to distribute aid to thousands of individuals and families who have been most affected by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Learn more about the extensions here.

Next, the Board voted to allocate CARES Act funds to the Joint Office of Homeless Services to purchase two shelter sites that will allow the County to both meet urgent shelter needs created by the pandemic and provide critical life-saving shelter after the pandemic has passed.

The first site is a vacant pharmacy in North Portland that will immediately become a COVID-compliant severe weather shelter this winter and will become the Joint Office’s first services-enriched shelter in that quadrant of Portland after the pandemic. The second site is a 59-room motel in Northeast Portland that is currently being used by the Joint Office as a physical distancing motel shelter for people with significant health issues. The shelter will continue to be used in this manner throughout the pandemic and will be reassessed as housing or shelter after.

The 59-room motel in Northeast Portland is similar to the physical distancing motel shelter the Joint Office has stood up at the Portland Value Inn - Barbur in Southwest Portland, pictured here.
The purchase of these two sites doesn't just help us to meet the immediate challenges brought on by the pandemic; the acquisitions also fall in line with the County's and the Joint Office's long-term strategy for expanding housing options and our emergency shelter system. The Joint Office will combine this new allocation with previously allocated funds to make these purchases.

Learn more about the purchases here.

In May, voters wisely passed Metro’s $2.4 billion Supportive Housing Services Measure, a landmark investment that will fund our response to chronic and short-term homelessness. Our Local Implementation Plan was crafted — over months of work and feedback from hundreds of community members — to direct how the County should use those funds. 

On Thursday, the Board approved the Local Implementation Plan, prioritizing investments in rent assistance, housing supports and behavioral health services, as well as different modes of shelter and street outreach, all with a foundational focus on equity. Multnomah County will begin to see the funds from the measure next July.

I’ve dedicated most of my career in public service to get to a point like this — approving a plan to end homelessness across the region by a community-driven strategy and the resources to meet that need. I am deeply thankful for everyone who has contributed to these efforts over the years to help our community build a transformative response to homelessness.

Learn more about the Local Implementation Plan here.

And lastly, the Board took the first step in bringing 100 units of affordable housing to east Multnomah County by approving the transfer of County-owned property in Troutdale to Home Forward, the region’s public housing authority. 

Troutdale also has a substantial need for affordable housing, as more than half of Troutdale renters are cost-burdened. The future housing will be in close proximity to jobs, schools, services, shopping and public transportation.

The vote relinquishes 3.54 acres of vacant land to Home Forward for an affordable housing development, which will be their first in Troutdale. The project will be funded by money generated by Metro’s 2018 regional affordable housing construction measure.

Learn more about the new plans for affordable housing in Troutdale here.

These Board actions, as well as the dozen other items that we voted on on Thursday, were taken under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic and the County’s response to it. Our votes represented critical steps to ensure that we were leveraging every last dollar of the CARES Act funding that has been allocated to Multnomah County from the federal, state and city governments. 

In spite of the unpredictable events of 2020 that have turned everything on its head, Multnomah County has stayed true to our mission, doubled down, and, in some cases, even expanded our services to those most in need by investing in all levels of our response to homelessness and housing.

We are tired and we are stretched, but we are resolute as ever in supporting the people who need us, because that’s what Multnomah County does. The new year will bring new hopes, but the County’s work to keep people safe, ensure our neighbors have what they need and provide opportunities to thrive will never waver.

Please stay safe and stay healthy,

Deborah Kafoury
Multnomah County Chair

Due to the continued surge in cases that we are experiencing in Multnomah County, we remain in the “Extreme Risk” category of the governor’s COVID-19 health and safety framework. That means that we must stay vigilant about taking the individual and collective actions we know can help slow the spread of the virus, protect the essential workers in our community and avoid overwhelming our hospital systems as much as we can.

I know that staying home as much as possible and limiting our outings to essential tasks is tough, especially when it feels like we have so much to do during the holidays, even in the middle of the pandemic. But this time of year is, at its heart, about showing that we love and care for each other. So right now, as our community continues to confront a virus that thrives on proximity, there’s no better way to show a little love than taking those steps, along with the other measures we know work in helping to slow the spread.

If you’re worried about finishing up your holiday shopping, you can visit my Show a Little Love campaign webpage for tips on how to safely cross off everything on your list while also supporting the local small businesses that need us now more than ever.