September 15: The people and values who will carry us through any crisis

Dear friends and neighbors,

This past year has been one of the most trying stretches imaginable for our community. Homelessness and systemic racism were already ongoing emergencies hurting thousands of people in our community every day. And that was before a global pandemic came along, not just changing life for every member of our community, but also intensifying the challenges many were already experiencing.

And then, last week, we watched our forests burn and our skies dim with dangerous smoke, as thousands more Oregonians lost their homes and livelihoods. As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 1 millions acres have burned, tens of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes, and acrid smoke has blanketed much of our state. 

Yet, in the middle of these crises, I continue to see profound bright spots and reasons for hope that push me forward — namely, the people in our community who see others in need and choose to show up. And it’s not just our neighbors with extra means. It’s those who have themselves struggled or are currently in need, too. It’s people who have felt dehumanized by racist systems and institutions. It’s those who know what it’s like to survive outside and be ignored by strangers, only to jump at the chance to help people they don’t know.

These community members show up time and time again to help our vulnerable neighbors during hard times, and this unprecedented wildfire season and its ensuing air hazards have been no exception. Their selflessness and compassion reflect the best of who we are as a community, and those values are what will carry us through this latest challenge together. 

With fires encroaching on our friends and family across the state, and with the air itself threatening neighbors on our streets, this community simply could have said that it was too tired to give anything more. Instead, people stood up and got ready to help Multnomah County provide shelter and support for those who are in need. They became the helpers people in distress are told to look for.

OCC shelter photo
On Thursday, Sept. 10, the Oregon Convention Center began serving as shelter for evacuees from neighboring counties, as well as for people experiencing homelessness.
As soon as it looked as if we would need to take action to protect those vulnerable to the smoke and fires, concerned neighbors, volunteers, nonprofit partners and government agencies, and even community members already surviving without shelter, linked arms and got to work.

  • Metro opened additional bays of the Oregon Convention Center for shelter. Portland Parks and Recreation opened up two community centers so that our team could use them as additional smoke shelters.
  • Outreach teams, community volunteers, County and City staff, shelter workers and local businesses started distributing tens of thousands of newly acquired KN95 masks to people while helping others get into shelter and out of the toxic smoke. They also passed out sanitizer and other gear to people in every part of the county. 
  • Homeless service advocates and outreach providers, and thousands of community members, started spreading the word about the help and resources available.
  • Volunteers from the city’s Neighborhood Emergency Teams, among others, signed up to staff the shelters.
  • Local restaurants started preparing and sharing extra meals
  • Neighbors brought hygiene supplies and bottles of water, while the Medical Reserve Corps mobilized to offer medical care for people in the shelters.

In moments like this — in the face of systemic problems like homelessness and racism, and in the face of natural disasters like wildfires and pandemics — it’s easy to feel small. Especially after months of grinding.

But in this community, we’ve repeatedly shown that just getting by isn’t good enough.

We are capable of stepping up for each other to support our neighbors in need, even when we feel stretched. And over this last week, that’s meant helping hundreds of neighbors with gear and a safer place to be. It’s meant taking in family and friends from neighboring counties, or donating money or supplies to aid organizations.

Multnomah County can’t do this work alone. We’re grateful, as always, that we don’t have to. And I hope that as we stare down the challenges ahead, you’ll continue to find ways to let the best parts of our community shine through you, too. 

Thank you for always looking out for each other. 

Please stay safe and stay healthy,

Deborah Kafoury
Multnomah County Chair

Multnomah County Wildfire Threat Resources