May 29, 2021
Dear Friends and Neighbors,

As I write this, Multnomah County has moved into the lower risk category; thousands of people attended a Blazers game in person on Thursday; and we’re starting to gather in community again. Our experience over the past 15 months leads me to continue to ground my optimism in caution, but this is all good news.

Elsewhere in the world, things are not going well. As some of you know, I visited India last month, just before the harrowing surge there. My parents both came down with COVID after having had their first shot. They are fine now - that first dose almost certainly protected them from worse - but our fate is tied to what happens in the rest of the world, and I’m still looking for bold leadership from the Biden administration on this front.

COVID News

The rapidly evolving guidelines from the CDC and the Oregon Health Authority about masking have created quite a bit of confusion. Our Public Health Department continues to advise everyone, vaccinated or not, to mask when in an indoor public setting. While we have made progress, almost half of the Metro area population is not yet fully vaccinated.  Many of those who are not vaccinated continue to face barriers to access - the inability to get time off from work to vaccinate or to recover from vaccine reactions, lack of transportation to a vaccine site, and understandable fears about the vaccine itself. We have no way of knowing who is vaccinated and who is not; and we’ve heard from hundreds of businesses that it is impractical for their employees to try to figure it out. Keeping our masks on for a few more weeks while we continue to increase our vaccination rates is sensible and does not seem like too much to ask for the safety of all our community members.

County Budget

For the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, May is budget month. The process of creating the budget is year-round work for our departments and budget office, but the public and deliberative part begins at the end of April, when the Chair publishes her executive budget. At $2.1 billion, this is the largest budget in County history. The growth in the budget comes primarily from federal American Rescue Plan and other COVID relief funding, and from three voter-approved ballot measures: the Metro Supportive Housing Services (MSHS) measure, the Preschool for All measure, and the library bond measure. Given that the County is the safety net provider for our most vulnerable residents, it’s difficult to prioritize among the enormous range of services we provide. All of those services -- primary health care, mental health care, aging and disability services, school-based supports for children and families, homeless services -- are vital. That being said, a few areas were particular priorities for me in this year’s budget:

  • Homeless services
  • Gun violence and domestic violence response and prevention
  • Recovery for those hardest hit by the pandemic

My proposed budget amendments reflect those priorities:

  • $800,000 of additional American Rescue Plan funding for homeless services to complement the City’s plan to create additional safe sleep sites for experiencing unsheltered homelessness (more about this later);

  • $250,000 for financial stability services for people leaving the criminal legal system and for survivors of domestic violence; and

  • $150,000 for a demonstration project that would create localized, place-based coalitions to prevent and respond to gun violence.

I also submitted an amendment that would provide funding for a capital construction project to serve African immigrant communities, and, jointly with Commissioner Vega Pederson, an amendment for additional capacity to address and reduce wood smoke pollution, something that’s a particular issue in District 2. And, the executive budget already includes funding for an additional priority that I suggested and advocated for, a study of immigrant and refugee services, gaps, and potential ways of improving our connection with immigrant and refugee communities.

We will vote to adopt our budget next Thursday, June 2.

Homelessness

With the passage of last year’s Metro Homeless Services Measure (MHSM), the City of Portland and Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) is poised to make a historic investment in moving people out of homelessness and into housing. There has been robust discussion in recent weeks about whether the JOHS budget does enough to address what we’re seeing all around us: a seeming explosion of unsheltered homelessness. Specifically, the question has been whether we should be investing a great deal more in forms of emergency shelter: managed camps, villages, safe sleep sites, and the like.

Some context that I think is helpful for this discussion: this shouldn’t be framed as a choice between permanent housing and emergency shelter. We have to invest in both. But there is a question of balance. Every dollar spent on emergency shelter is a dollar less spent on permanent housing. And permanent housing, when achieved through rent subsidy (see here for my 2019 op-ed on long-term rental assistance), is less expensive, faster, and provides a long-term solution.

Here are some relative costs: Annual rent assistance is approximately $10,000 per year (remember that we don’t necessarily pay the full amount of rent - rather, we pay enough to make a market-rate apartment affordable for someone on a very low income). For the people who are most difficult to stabilize, supportive services are generally budgeted at an additional $10,000 per year, for a total cost of $20,000. In comparison, the operating cost of our three outdoor pod shelters is approximately $24,000 per pod per year. And that does not include the capital cost of setting up those shelters. Those are among our most expensive shelters, but the basic point stands. Emergency shelter is expensive.

With this in mind, I believe that the JOHS budget generally strikes an appropriate balance between spending to move people into permanent housing and spending on emergency shelter. With the MHSM funding, the JOHS projects that it will move an additional 1,300 people into permanent housing, by subsidizing their rent and providing supportive services; and will create up to 460 beds of additional shelter capacity in the next year. By way of context, the last Point in Time count estimated 2,000 people living outdoors. Even if that number has increased by, let’s say, a third, the numbers of people the JOHS estimates placing in housing or shelter next year will have significant impact.  

That being said, COVID has had a dramatic impact on what we see on the streets, and I believe that we do need to address some immediate needs. COVID has had an enormous impact. In particular, following CDC guidance, the City of Portland has not been dispersing encampments as it had been doing before the pandemic. That has been the right thing to do, but it has led both to the proliferation of camping in unsafe situations, and to the growth in size of encampments. Add to that issues with the regional trash collection system (and the fact that apparently some housed folks are dumping their own trash near encampments), and you have the present conditions. 

As we come out of COVID, we are going to have to address the health and safety issues we see on the streets. As we do so, I believe we do need some alternative places and spaces for people to move to, that are in addition to the expansion in shelter capacity included in the MSHM plan. I think we need to be careful about the scope and scale of these additional spaces, and limit them to that COVID-created need rather than view them as permanent expansions to our shelter system -- otherwise, we will divert funds from the cheaper, faster, longer term solution of permanent housing to the more expensive, stop-gap strategy of shelter. But some of those additional spaces are necessary to give people somewhere to move to as we unwind some of the impacts of COVID. And we need additional services to support people during that transition -- to meet their basic needs, to help them identify alternatives, and to support them as they move. 

American Rescue Plan (ARP) resources are the appropriate funding stream for these additional spaces and for the associated services. The City of Portland has stated that it will devote a share of its ARP funding to creating some additional outdoor shelter sites. As the local public health authority, the County has to focus the bulk of its ARP resources on the continued need for a public health response -- testing, vaccination, wrap-around supports.  But as mentioned above, I believe there is a need for additional services to complement the City’s plan; therefore my budget amendment for an additional $800,000 in services.

One final point: While we will need to provide people the choice of some safer, more supported places to shelter, I don’t believe these can ever be the carrot as prelude to a stick. In other words, we cannot punish or sanction people in order to make them move. Some have suggested that perhaps we can “ticket” people for being in places we don’t want them to be. Ticketing is a sanction. It’s a sanction that has no teeth and no effect unless it’s backed up by another sanction. Take this to its conclusion, and we would be threatening to jail people who don’t comply. That would be both inhumane and ineffective, and is not something that I support.

In the Community

Last week included several moments that reminded me why I serve in this capacity. First was the official opening of the St. Johns Village, a project two years in the making. This great story highlights the role of the St. Johns community in bringing the project over the finish line. Next was a meeting of the Portland Public School Board in which the directors resolved to give the Albina Vision Trust a right of first refusal on its Blanchard building, which sits in the Albina neighborhood, the heart of the Black community that was torn apart when I5 was bulldozed through it. It was a privilege to witness and support this milestone toward the vision of the repair and renewal of this neighborhood and community. And finally, on Thursday, I attended the ribbon-cutting for a wonderful new mural that has gone up at NE Shaver and Martin Luther King Drive, on the south side of the Microenterprise Services of Oregon (MESO) building. The mural features pioneering Black entrepreneurs and community members, some of whom were in attendance. It was wonderful to meet them and the artists, and to support MESO’s work to nurture and build economic stability through entrepreneurship. A great way to close out the week!

I wish you all a restful and reviving Memorial Day weekend.

With gratitude,

Susheela

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