February 24, 2022

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

February brought unseasonably warm weather (though a cold snap is upon us now), several briefings on our work on houselessness, and a receding Omicron.

It also brought the shocking news, just this morning, of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While that may seem far from the day to day work of Multnomah County, we are home to significant communities of Russian and Ukrainian immigrants, and I am thinking of them and their friends and family as we watch this war unfold.

And it brought the tragic news about gun violence this past weekend, with at least three shootings, including the murder of one protester and serious injury of several others at Normandale Park. This wasn’t only gun violence, it was political violence. On one hand, it too was shocking; on the other, given an escalating acceptance of violence as a political response, it’s a very concerning reflection of our times.

We don’t yet know all the circumstances of this weekend’s shootings, or what could have prevented them. But when we look at the totality of gun violence, we know there’s no one solution. Sensible gun laws, & enforcement of those laws; investment in social services, education, behavioral health care, youth employment, community centers, and economic uplift; and culture change that rejects violence as a way to resolve conflict – We need it all.

COVID-19 Update

In breaking news just a short time ago, the state has announced that the indoor and school mask mandates will be lifted on March 19th, because of more rapid than expected declines in hospitalization rates. Our public health department is cautiously optimistic that we can look forward to a return to more "normal" activities this spring and summer, while always being mindful that the virus is still circulating, and can pose a continued threat, especially to our more vulnerable community members. So keep assessing the risk posed to you and others by specific situations, and protect yourselves and them accordingly. The rapid tests that are now more readily available are an excellent tool.

Houselessness

In January, the Board received progress briefings on the implementation of the Metro Supportive Housing Services Measure (SHS). There’s a lot more detail in the article linked to above, but the most important takeaways were these:In the six months between July 2021 and January 2022:

  • We moved 1,780 people from the streets or emergency shelter into housing (325 of those with SHS funding, the rest with other funding streams); and
  • Enrolled an additional 743 people in housing programs (not yet placed).

To put these numbers in context: the 2019 Point-In-Time count estimated approximately 2,000 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the County (i.e. on the streets). We know that was an undercount, and that the number has certainly gone up during the pandemic; but even if it has tripled, 1,780 people housed is significant. And it was accomplished in far less time than it takes to develop emergency shelters.

That being said, continuing to strategically expand our shelter capacity is important to addressing the immediate health and safety issues experienced by people living unsheltered. This morning, I joined Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan at a press conference to announce the selection of two new alternative village sites, both in District 2. One will be on the Peninsula Crossing Trail; and the other will be a safe parking site in the Sunderland neighborhood, near NE 33rd Avenue. Both are locations where there has been a long-standing and growing presence of people living unsheltered, in tents or vehicles. I have been advocating for managed camps at these locations; siting them where people already are will provide more humane conditions, and a pathway to services and housing; and will address impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods. I look forward to working with the City, the Joint Office, and neighbors to bring these projects to fruition. You can link to my remarks at the press conference here.

On a related issue: the Mayor’s office recently created news with proposals to move 3,000 people into large indoor congregate shelter spaces or outdoor camps. Even setting aside the more extreme elements of these proposals, such as using the National Guard, I believe these proposals take us in the wrong direction.  The problems with large congregate shelters are well-described in this article. Such mass sites would be very difficult to manage (if we could even find a shelter provider willing to do so); and for most people, would not be an environment that allows them to leave the streets. This is not to say we shouldn’t provide shelter: as illustrated above, I have consistently supported a strategic expansion of our shelter system. But these proposals for mass shelter sites do not make sense to prioritize when there are other strategies that can move people even more quickly and more permanently off the streets.

One misperception I hear quite often is that moving people into housing is too slow, because we have to build the housing units. Although we are of course building new affordable housing, the much quicker way to house someone is to subsidize or to fully pay their rent in market-rate housing - apartments that already exist. Most of housing placements in the last six months were achieved through this strategy. 

To make this process even faster, and to increase the number of units available for this purpose, I am exploring block leasing: having the Joint Office or non-profit partners lease large blocks of apartments that can be made available to house people. This strategy could offer several advantages. By creating an inventory that’s more within our control, it could streamline and speed the process of identifying available units and placing people in them; and it could alleviate landlord concerns about renting to people emerging from houselessness. The Mayor’s plans have the right objective: to move more people more quickly off the streets; but there are other ways to do this, with far better longer term results.

As a final note, we have now completed our first Point-In-Time count since 2019. This count, required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, estimates the number of people living unsheltered (on streets, sidewalks, or other places not intended for human habitation, or in vehicles) on a specific night - in this case, January 26th. While the count is widely known to underestimate the actual number of people experiencing homelessness, it is an important data source. The survey also asks people how long they’ve been homeless, whether they have a disability or other issues, whether they’ve experienced domestic violence, and for other information that helps us assess the kinds of housing and services we need. We should have this year’s results later in the spring.

Other Updates

Air Quality and Wood Smoke

Wood smoke is one of the most harmful pollutants in our air. It consists of tiny particles that lodge deep in the lungs, creating and exacerbating a host of respiratory and other health issues. It’s particularly dangerous for children, who breathe much more quickly and therefore take in more air than adults; and, like other air pollution, it disproportionately impacts Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. Multnomah County has some of the worst air in the state, and District 2 has some of the worst air in the County.

Last summer, I partnered with Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson to lead a work group that created a policy framework for reducing wood smoke pollution. This month, we began implementation of the work group’s framework. The Board approved a resolution affirming our commitment to clean air, and an ordinance that expands our existing wood smoke curtailment system. The resolution articulates the vision that everyone, everywhere, deserves to breathe clean air - all the time. The ordinance makes the following changes to our wood smoke curtailment program:

  • Previously, our curtailment ordinance created a “green, yellow, red” system. We have now removed the “green” designation to reflect the recognition that there is no good day to burn wood - just worse days (yellow) and worst days (red). The County will issue advisories for yellow days, when conditions are such that residents should refrain from burning if at all possible; and for red days, when burning is prohibited. As always, we approach this issue from an education-first perspective rather than a punitive perspective. Our long term goal is to create a culture shift around the burning of wood.

  • The ordinance will be in effect year-round, rather than the previous October - March season.

  • EPA-certified wood stoves will no longer be exempt, reflecting current data that such stoves do not reduce pollution.

Many thanks to the dedicated advocates who brought this issue to my attention early in my term, and  to all the partners who collaborated to bring forward the policy framework. Additional policies will be implemented in the months to come, including the piloting of a wood stove changeout program to be created with ARPA funds I advocated for with state Senator Michael Dembrow.District 2 new boundaries

New District 2 Boundaries

In January, the board approved the Multnomah County Redistricting Plan; and as of February 5, new district boundaries are in effect. The North Tabor Neighborhood was added to District 2, and the portion east of NE 148th is now part of District 4, represented by Commissioner Lori Stegmann. I look forward to getting to know my new constituents.

In the Community

On January 26, Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington hosted Representative Barbara Smith Warner and me for a discussion about Oregon’s inequitable property tax system, and the need for statewide reform. Property taxes are the financial backbone of funding local services, and one of my priorities is reforming Oregon’s system to work adequately and equitably for all residents. 

I started off Black History Month by participating in several events with organizations that serve Black residents. I celebrated the WomenFirst Transition & Referral Center, which will be a one-stop-shop of services for women transitioning from incarceration and recovery; and participated in two “In My Shoes” walking tours - curated by Word is Bond, and led by young Black men - one in Cully, and one in Parkrose. Each was a wonderful opportunity to see these neighborhoods through the eyes of Black youth who grew up in them. I was particularly struck by the words of one of the young men, Iman, in describing Cully: we struggle here, he said, but it's a "beautiful struggle." I think he wanted us to know that he and his neighborhood are not defined by their struggle; and that there is also beauty and joy, especially when there is common cause and community in that struggle.

And finally, last week I visited what will be the new headquarters for Street Roots, an invaluable partner in the work of serving people who are living unsheltered. This project, in which Multnomah County is a funder, will allow Street Roots to expand its services, and will include showers, laundry facilities, a “beauty parlor”, and gathering spaces. This too is part of the "beautiful struggle;" and I can’t wait to see it come to fruition.

With gratitude,

Susheela


Rent Assistance

Oregon Housing and Community Services, emergency rental assistance application is currently open. Oregon Senate Bill 891 protects renters who have applied for rent assistance from nonpayment evictions if they provide documentation of their application to their landlords. Oregon renters who apply for rent assistance and provide documentation to their landlord before July 1, 2022, are protected by this “safe harbor” protection until their application is processed, up until Sept. 30, 2022.

  • How to apply for Multnomah County rent assistance here.

  • For landlords: help your tenant apply for rent relief here.

Vaccine Clinics

Click here for more information on upcoming COVID-18 Vaccination Clinics.

Winter Donations & Shelter Volunteers

Outreach providers need life-saving gear to distribute during cold weather, and volunteers to support our severe weather shelters. Learn how to support our neighbors living unsheltered here. The Arbor Lodge Shelter at 7440 N Denver is open and running as of Friday, Nov. 19. The shelter is looking for donations of clean socks, new towels, and clean blankets. You can call the donation number at 503 793-9001.

Join the Community Involvement Committee

Do you care about community involvement in County decision-making? Do you want to help reduce barriers to civic participation? Do you enjoy working with a diverse group to identify common goals that benefit the community? If so, apply to join the County's Community Involvement Committee (CIC)

The CIC serves as Multnomah County’s advisory body on community engagement and involvement. CIC members engage in an ongoing review of the County's community involvement policies and programs, bring community concerns to County leadership, and assist in facilitating communication between the County and the community. 

We are currently recruiting for 4 new CIC members! To learn more and start your application, visit https://www.multco.us/oci/apply-community-involvement-committee.

The deadline for applications is Wednesday, March 9th at 11:59pm.

To receive assistance completing your application or for any questions, contact the Office of Community Involvement at community.involvement@multco.us or 503-988-3450.

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