January 19, 2021

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

I write this on Martin Luther King Jr., Day. As I usually do on this day, I’ve been dipping in and out of Dr. King’s essays and sermons. This year, I find myself focusing on his work toward economic justice: his recognition that “freedom from want is the basic freedom from which all others flow;” and that “[n]o one should be forced to live in poverty while others live in luxury.” 

Dr. King’s lifting up of economic injustice, of poverty and inequality, seems particularly relevant to the work of Multnomah County. We serve people who are experiencing poverty; but our longer term goal has to be to lift people out of poverty, and put them on a sustainable and permanent path to economic stability and resilience. That means providing financial assistance with as few barriers or conditions as possible; it means helping people build assets, through savings and home ownership; it means providing and supporting living wage jobs and robust benefits; and it means advocating for essential supports, including child and elder care support.

An example of this kind of work is a pilot project funded in our last budget, one I’ve mentioned before - our Mothers’ Trust Project, which will provide 100 Black moms with an unconditional monthly basic income, and enlists them in evaluation of the project as well. I’m looking forward to identifying more such strategies as we move into our 2023 budgeting process.

One final quote from Dr. King: “Faith is taking the first step when you can’t see the whole staircase.” With the coronavirus pandemic very much still present, and with our community continuing to wrestle with seemingly intractable problems, these words provide motivation - for the first step, and the second, and continuing onward.

COVID-19 Update

The Omicron variant has scrambled our COVID response at the federal, state, and local levels. It is taxing our health care system to an extent we haven’t seen since the early months of the pandemic; sending kids back into virtual learning; stressing parents who again have to juggle work and child care; and pushing all of us back into our homes when we thought it was safe to emerge.

As discouraging as all this is, it’s really important to remember that we are still better off than we were a year ago. Yes, there are many breakthrough cases; but the vaccine, especially if boosted, continues to be remarkably effective at preventing severe illness and death. 

This roller coaster created by the emergence of new variants may well continue for some time, and we have to prepare ourselves - emotionally, logistically, and in policy terms - for that likelihood.

Contact Tracing: The biggest shift we’ve made at Multnomah County in order to address this new variant is to move resources from investigation and contact tracing to our vaccination effort. As explained here in more detail, the rapidity with which Omicron spreads means that it’s no longer a good use of resources to try and track individual exposures. By the time we are notified of a positive case and track close contacts, it will likely be too late to tell those exposed to isolate themselves (that was the original purpose of contact tracing). Instead, we are focusing on trying to get more people vaccinated and boosted. 

Multnomah County’s vaccination rates continue to be higher than the state’s as a whole, with almost 86% of residents having received one shot, 78.5% having received two, and 43.2% boosted. We are focused on continuing to raise those rates, particularly for at-risk populations (seniors, people in congregate care settings) and for those who continue to have difficulty accessing shots. 

Schools: I know parents are confused and distressed about rapidly changing guidances and decisions in the schools. The County public health department is working with schools to issue guidances that align with Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Oregon Health Authority recommendations, and balance risk reduction with the need to maintain in-person learning.  The two major areas of focus are (a) requirements for quarantine and isolation; and (b) contact tracing for school exposures.

Regarding quarantine and isolation, the guidance aligns with CDC recommendations by removing quarantine requirements for close contacts of someone who has tested positive based on the close contact’s vaccination status; and shortening the isolation period for someone who has tested positive from ten days to five. 

Regarding contact tracing, the guidance mirrors the change in the County's own contact tracing efforts: that is to say, it reflects the reality that this variant moves so quickly and is so widespread that individual contact tracing is much less effective. Accordingly, schools are advised to prioritize contact tracing in two situations: during mealtimes when masks can't be worn, and during any indoor or outdoor learning activities that do not include masks.

The Health Department's full guidance to schools can be found here.

Vaccine verification: As we recognize that the pandemic will be with us for some time, we need to keep thinking about the tools that can help set a longer term course toward maximizing vaccination and boosting. I believe vaccine verification policies for restaurants, bars, gyms, and other indoor venues are one such tool, to incentivize vaccination (especially among younger age groups that currently have lower vaccination rates) and to build a social and cultural environment that understands vaccination as an essential health care practice.  Our public health department does not believe that vaccination verification will be especially helpful in mitigating the Omicron surge, but once that surge (and the associated demands on public health's capacity) has mitigated, will turn to evaluating the case for vaccine verification policies. I’ll continue to monitor this.

In the meantime, our message continues to be: 

  • The best thing you can do is to be vaccinated and boosted. Vaccines are critical and provide good protection against severe disease. 
  • Slow the spread by wearing a high-quality mask indoors; staying home if you are sick; and limiting your social contacts (consider postponing events or moving them online).

Houselessness

Early in my term, I joined a group of business leaders, service providers, and other elected officials on a trip to learn how Los Angeles was addressing its houselessness crisis. From that trip was born Here Together, the coalition that developed the Metro Supportive Housing Services Measure (MSHSM) approved in May of 2020. The coalition has continued its work, monitoring and providing input on implementation of the measure.

This past Sunday, I joined Brandi Tuck (Executive Director of Portland Homeless Family Solutions) and Michael Liu (CFO of Fubonn Shopping Center and member of the Portland Business Alliance) in an Oregonian op-ed outlining Here Together’s 2022 Roadmap to tackle houselessness. We noted that while progress is being made, roadblocks persist and must be acknowledged and removed. We also noted, however, that we will only continue to make progress through collaboration and focus on proven solutions - not through sowing fear and frustration, and not through reference to an idealized Portland past - a Portland past that failed to provide equal opportunity and affordable housing for all. I greatly appreciate the work Here Together is doing to build and sustain a partnership between the public and private sectors on this most critical of issues.

As an additional note, the Board today received the first of a two-part briefing on implementation of the MSHSM. I'll summarize these briefings in my next newsletter, but if you'd like to watch today's briefing, you can do so here.

For those of you who continue to look for ways to join in the effort, we have a critical need and opportunity coming up - the 2022 Point-in-Time Count (PIT). The PIT is Multnomah County’s every-other-year effort to estimate the number of people experiencing homelessness in our county. This year's PIT is scheduled for January 26- February 1, 2022, with a focus on those who were unsheltered on the night of Wednesday, January 26. 

We count on hundreds of volunteers like you to help us get as complete and accurate of a count as possible, and my team and I will be participating. You can join us by filling out this form to volunteer. Learn more about the PIT here

Other Updates

Over the past few weeks I've been involved in several important discussions on workers’ rights, sex trafficking, and clean air. At the Portland Jobs With Justice’s Workers’ Rights board meeting, members received an update on efforts to support workers in organizing for better pay and working conditions. I chaired a meeting of the Multnomah County Sex Trafficking Collaborative’s Executive Committee, at which we discussed a restructuring of County committees on domestic and sexual violence to better center the voices of survivors in all aspects of work, ranging from policy creation to program implementation.  This is a restructuring I initiated, in partnership with County’s Domestic and Sexual Violence Office. I also joined the Capaces Leadership Institute and the American Leadership Forum for a discussion on elected leadership and public service for and by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, facilitating a lively discussion about opportunities and challenges faced by BIPOC leaders.

Finally, along with commissioners from six counties, I participated in the appointment process for Senate District 16, a position left open by the resignation of Senator Betsy Johnson.  All of the candidates would have done a great job representing the Senate seat, and I would like to congratulate Rachel Armitage for stepping in for the short session to fill that role. 

The year is off to a busy start; as always, please get in touch with any questions or comments

With gratitude,

Susheela


Rent Assistance

Oregon Housing and Community Services will be reopening their rental assistance application on Wednesday, January 26th. It is currently paused while they process a backlog of applications.They anticipate the application process will remain open for between 3 - 5 weeks and will begin processing applications once the acceptance period opens. If you are in need of emergency rental assistance, once the application opens apply as soon as you are able as funds are limited.

  • 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.

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