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Commissioner Sharon Meieran Newsletter - July 2021

Dear Friends,

A lot has happened since my last newsletter - we adopted our Fiscal Year 2022 budget, we celebrated Juneteenth (a newly minted federal holiday!), Pride Month and Immigrant Heritage Month in Multnomah County, the Oregon Legislature concluded a session full of important policy and some critical missed opportunities, Oregon lifted most pandemic-related restrictions, school (such that it was) let out for the summer, and our region experienced a devastating heat wave. I’ll share more about many of these topics below, and also provide a “special edition” second newsletter later this month to share some updates on our ongoing work to address the environmental and community risks associated with the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub in Northwest Portland - stay tuned!

A catastrophic heat wave As June came to a close, much of the Pacific Northwest was gripped by a devastating stretch of record-breaking heat. I saw some of the impact firsthand when I delivered water and supplies to encampments with State Representative Lisa Reynolds, and when I worked as a medical volunteer at one of the County’s cooling centers. I saw countless first responders who worked tirelessly through the weather, and numerous volunteers delivering water and staffing cooling centers and helping people in whatever way they could. Yet despite some of these truly heroic efforts, there were at least 116 deaths across Oregon and 71 deaths in Multnomah County alone, and there were record numbers of emergency calls and hospitalizations. And as we learn more about the toll of this event, I’m heartbroken for those who suffered and lost their lives, and for their loved ones.

Though Multnomah County quickly stood up a multi-faceted response when faced with the heat emergency, there are always things we can learn from and do better. We are in the midst of an in-depth assessment of what happened and what we can do to improve our planning and response. This week, our Board expects to receive a more in-depth snapshot of the fatalities. We also anticipate an interim review of short-term actions, and eventually a more comprehensive “after-action review” of our county-wide response and more detailed information on the fatalities that occurred. These evaluations will inform how we prepare for another extreme weather event like this. In addition, I have heard about significant challenges community members faced when attempting to access information and transportation through the 2-1-1 call center during the heat emergency. We rely on partners like 2-1-1 for several ongoing County functions, as well as a rapid ramp up during emergencies. I have requested a formal board briefing about 2-1-1 to understand how we can improve service, accountability and oversight.

And, as we assess our response in the aftermath of this event, I’m thinking a lot about this new era we’re entering. Although there were a number of converging factors leading to this particular heat event being a “perfect storm,” the reality is that climate extremes are going to increasingly be our new normal. As a physician, I know that cooling through air conditioning can save lives. I have heard numerous stories of people in rooms or apartments that reached extremely high temperatures indoors, and have heard calls for requiring central air conditioning in publicly owned housing structures. This may indeed be part of the solution. But we need to be thoughtful about how we proceed, and consider potential negative impacts, unintended consequences and risks in addition to the potential benefits of significant policy change. As we move into planning for another event like this, we need to move nimbly and quickly to implement short-term solutions. We must also think more strategically about public cooling and public infrastructure - safe green spaces, water infrastructure, and smart design - rather than focusing narrowly on private, individual cooling, in order to more efficiently and equitably meet the needs of our entire community.

Multnomah County Fiscal Year 2022 Budget

Last week, Multnomah County’s Budget Office posted final budget documents for our Adopted Fiscal Year 2022 Budget. Our base budget is a very strong indication of our shared values across an incredible array of work that Multnomah County does for and with our community. It also reflects major new ways to grow - seeding new ideas and scaling things that we know work. Broadly, the FY22 budget makes major new investments in supportive housing and services, applies federal and state investments in pandemic relief, supports how we respond to and prevent violence in our community, and sustains and deepens our intentional work to address racial disparities.

In addition to these big themes, I want to highlight some specific items that might not get as much attention but are very important, and illustrate the breadth and depth of the work we do at Multnomah County:

  • Digital Access Coordinator - As we advance our work on digital equity and next steps related to the Municipal Broadband Feasibility study we completed last year, this is a really important role that will coordinate with internal and external stakeholders, track funding opportunities, and connect these dots to help close the digital divide in Multnomah County. 
  • Support for Aging Well & services for elders affected by HIV - The FY22 budget includes an amendment I proposed to support and expand services for aging adults living with or affected by HIV and AIDS. Dramatic improvements in the effectiveness of HIV treatment have resulted in people living with HIV longer than ever before. This positive development comes with unique challenges that accompany being a long-term HIV/AIDS survivor, including isolation and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. This investment will bolster our service network and support the capacity of organizations dedicated to working with this community.
  • Support for front line workers with community partner organizations - The people doing the work of the County are the heart and soul of our organization, and much of our mission is accomplished through contracting with community based organizations. In doing this crucial and often very difficult work, employees need support, including making a living wage. The FY22 budget dedicates some additional funding to directly support workers through Joint Office of Homeless Services contracts, but we need to do more. Chair Kafoury’s office has made a commitment to convene a structured process in the coming months to explore how we can achieve a living wage for our extended workforce of contracted service providers. I appreciate this commitment, and will be tracking this process closely and supporting these efforts.

And, there are all sorts of smaller, “quieter” things tucked away in this budget that I appreciate such as stipends for members of our Community Involvement Committee, a new Conviction Integrity Unit in the DA’s office, increased land use and planning code compliance staffing to better serve our communities, funding to support the Audubon Society’s Wildlife Care Center project, improving air quality by reducing the harmful impacts of woodsmoke, deepening equity work in the Sheriff’s Office, continuing work on our Fossil Fuel Infrastructure Study (stay tuned for more on that later this month...) and much more.

This year demanded our best critical thinking as we considered how to implement major new programs and continue to support our communities in surviving and recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. It was uniquely challenging to have an unprecedented level of resources to budget, but also a truly unparalleled level of need to address. The budget is an important milestone, but our work continues as we implement and evaluate these investments. 

Ongoing challenges - housing and homelessness

One of my key priorities has been to develop a plan to urgently address the humanitarian crisis of unsheltered homelessness, through collaboration with partners at the state and City levels, and in the community. I appreciate that our FY22  budget included some significant new investments in hygiene, shelter, alternative shelter, and services that will help people move into housing through the Metro Supportive Housing Services Measure budget and American Rescue Plan Act funding. I am also pleased that our FY22 budget includes an amendment I proposed for dedicated staff capacity in the Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) to support alternative shelter work in coordination with the City of Portland. 

However, while this budget does much that I am proud of, I believe that we should have done more to specifically address the crisis of people living outside, unsheltered. During our budget process I proposed a budget amendment that would have supported a framework for reducing harm for people living unsheltered. I am heartened that the City of Portland has committed to establishing six “safe rest villages”, and that Chair Kafoury has pledged to work in partnership with the City through JOHS to support this work. When the City made this announcement, I revised my budget amendment to provide behavioral health and case management services in these sites - services that providers have told us are crucial to the sites’ success - but these services were not funded. I put forth budget notes to ensure that we follow through on our commitments to support these critical services for people in alternative shelter sites, and will be continuing to advocate for funding these services, supporting the work being done, and pressing for accountability to ensure the work is done urgently.

There is a lot more to say on these topics, and in the coming months I will share information on implementation of the Metro Supportive Housing Services Measure, Built for Zero and the County’s partnership with Community Solutions, ensuring rigorous and transparent data collection and public information, and other related issues. 

Vaccines, Economic Recovery, and Evictions

It’s hard not to go outside and feel that “recovery is in the air.” As pandemic restrictions ease we’ve seen many sectors and jobs begin to open back up, providing previously unavailable employment opportunities. Coupled with increased access to vaccines, we know that many will be able to safely return to work and begin to recover income. However, even as restrictions are lifted and life begins to feel more normal for many of us, this experience is not shared equally across our County. As we have seen highlighted throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, communities of color and indigenous community members, particularly those who are Black, LatinX and Native American, continue to experience the impacts of structural racism, and experience significantly lower rates of vaccination, higher rates of hospitalization, lower rates of returning to work, and greater risk of eviction. There is much Multnomah County is doing to provide access to vaccinations and support for historically underserved and marginalized communities, particularly those who are Black, Indigenous, immigrants/refugees and other People of Color. What has been at the forefront of many people’s minds, however, is what will happen now that Oregon’s eviction moratorium has expired, and what will prevent them from being evicted from their homes. 

Changes to protections for tenants

The COVID-19 pandemic has threatened housing stability for many, and I am closely tracking the roll-out of rent assistance and the evolving terrain around legal protections for tenants. Although Oregon’s statewide eviction moratorium expired on June 30, 2021, Senate Bill 278 provides 60 additional days of protection from eviction for eligible renters who apply for emergency rent assistance. This state law, bottom line, can provide some additional protection from eviction to tenants, as well as emergency rent assistance to tenants and protections for landlords. A comprehensive summary is available here, and I have provided some highlights, below: 

  • Tenants must apply for emergency rent assistance to be eligible for protection from eviction for nonpayment of rent due to Covid after June 30. Learn more about applying for rent assistance, or apply directly at oregonrentalassistance.org. Tenants should apply for rent assistance as soon as possible!
    • If you or someone you know receives a notice of eviction for nonpayment, call 2-1-1 immediately to get information and resources about rent assistance that can stand as a last defense against eviction.
    • Renters who need legal advice can find support from community resources such as the Community Alliance of Tenants or Legal Aid Services of Oregon.
  • Tenants must provide documentation of their application for rent assistance to their landlords in order to be protected from eviction. Providing that documentation starts the clock for their 60 days of additional protection, meaning that the tenant cannot be evicted from their residence due to nonpayment of rent for 60 days once they have shown their landlord that they have applied for rent assistance. 
    • In Multnomah County, this protection has been extended to 90 days. On July 8th, the Multnomah County Board voted to protect tenants from eviction for 90 days after providing documentation of application for rent assistance to their landlord.  This additional 30 days was meant to ensure adequate time to process applications and get checks to landlords.
  • Tenants cannot be evicted for owing back rent for the months of April 2020 through June 2021. But this back rent will become due and will need to be paid in full!
  • Tenants must repay all of their back rent by February 28, 2022! Tenants can apply for assistance in payment of back rent through the same process explained above.

Multnomah County has hired and redeployed staff to prepare for an influx of renters applying for assistance.  Additional staff are ready at 2-1-1 and Bienestar de la Familia. I am closely tracking the rollout of rent assistance and other indicators of community need. If you are aware of barriers faced by particular communities or snags in the process, please let me know and I will make sure that information gets to the right people.  

Closing

I hope that you have been doing well and, as always, I invite you to contact me with any thoughts, ideas, questions or concerns. 

In good health,

Sharon Meieran


Commissioner Sharon Meieran Newsletter - April 2021 

Dear friends,

Last week the Board of County Commissioners kicked off our annual budget process when the Chair released her proposed Fiscal Year 2022 budget. While county commissioners play many important roles, approving a balanced budget that reflects our values and supports a range of essential functions is truly at the core of what we do. Last year’s budget process was unconventional - balancing a budget in the midst of an economic and public health crisis with uncertain costs, impacts, needs, and resources was immensely challenging. This year, things feel a bit more stable but no less unique as we implement major new programs and allocate millions in pandemic relief resources. I want to dedicate most of this month’s newsletter to describing what happens during the budget process, some of my personal priorities, and how you can be involved.

County Budget Basics

The County’s budget supports vital services in the areas of housing and homelessness, health care, families and youth, public safety, services for elders and people with disabilities, Veterans’ services, infrastructure like roads and bridges, and much more. As a Board, we are responsible for developing and approving a balanced budget each year. The County’s total budget this year is about $2.81 billion. A large share of the County’s budget comprises federal and state funds specifically dedicated for particular uses. The General Fund, which derives primarily from tax revenue, is our most flexible funding source. The General Fund is about one-third of the total budget, and totals around $723 million for Fiscal Year 2022.

The budget process begins with each County department proposing a budget, based on target rates of spending provided by the Chair’s office. Chair Kafoury then considers departments’ proposals in developing her Executive/Proposed budget, which was released last week. This is a starting point for Board deliberation. Now, my colleagues and I will review the Chair’s budget, hear input from County departments and from the community, and consider our own spending priorities. We will hold budget work sessions and public budget hearings (full details and dates below) throughout the month of May, and we are scheduled to adopt a final budget on June 3rd.

This year’s budget is unique and provides unprecedented opportunities for investment due to two key factors: First, we have received federal pandemic response funds under the American Rescue Plan Act totaling $157.6 million, with an initial allocation of $78.8 million this year. Second, we are embarking on the first year of implementation of the Metro Supportive Housing Services Measure approved by voters last May, which will provide $52 million this year, and an estimated $100 million in future years, for services to address chronic homelessness. More on that below.

My Perspective and Priorities

Our budget shapes what we do, who we serve, how we employ people, and how we impact our community. Over the next 5 weeks I will work with the Chair and my colleagues on the Board to make budget decisions, focusing on using our resources efficiently, effectively and equitably. 

My perspective on budget and policy issues is informed by many sources. I strive to proactively seek out feedback and input from the community, and balance this with research, analysis, guidance from county staff and others, as well as my own values. When approaching budget decisions, I consider the following:

  1. How closely the program or service is aligned with the County’s core functions and mission, and how well it serves people who are most vulnerable, marginalized or underserved.

  2. Whether the program or service, or something similar, is or could be available elsewhere.

  3. The cost versus benefit of the program or service, including the scale of the program’s impact and potential unintended consequences. 

  4. The potential for upstream investments that can have measurable impact on downstream costs and outcomes. 

This year, I’m particularly focused on our ongoing COVID-19 pandemic response and approach to recovery; continuing to champion digital equity and access to broadband; re-envisioning our systems of public safety and community justice; advancing workforce equity, including moving toward a living wage for our contracted workforce; new investments in behavioral health, including our new Behavioral Health Resource Center; and urgently responding to the public health, safety and humanitarian crisis of people living unsheltered in our community. 

I am dedicated to supporting the work and strategies that will ultimately enable us to end homelessness. This includes preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place, long term rent assistance, deeply affordable housing, and supportive wraparound services that meet people’s needs so they are able to sustain their housing and thrive. These are all critical parts of a true continuum of services, and I am very excited to see many of them funded and operationalized through the proposed budget and work of the Joint Office of Homeless Services. However, I believe that as we are doing this long term work, we must also dramatically increase the ways we support the thousands of people who do not have housing or shelter available in the near term, or who do not wish to use our system of indoor shelter for a variety of valid reasons. 

I have spoken out about my perspective on this issue for a long time. Starting last year, I participated closely in Multnomah County’s development of a Local Implementation Plan to guide how we spend new funds from the Metro Supportive Housing Services Measure. Throughout that process, we heard from stakeholders about a desire for more alternative shelter options and the pressing need for improved hygiene services to meet people’s basic needs. I have consistently raised these issues, and continue to do so, as we have watched the crisis of unsheltered houselessness grow during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month I wrote an op-ed about a public health approach that would reduce harm by providing safer, more stable alternatives to those who are unsheltered. Last week I proposed a six-month plan, informed by what I have heard from advocates, service providers, people who have experienced houselessness, community members, faith leaders, elected officials, business owners, and neighborhood leaders. Essentially, the goal is to establish a coordinated network of a variety of alternative transitional shelter sites evenly distributed throughout the County, where people can have access to basic services and supports needed to live with safety, health and dignity, and without fear of having their belongings swept away and having to move from one night to the next. 

At its core, this work is informed by my values and commitment to reduce suffering and harm experienced by people living on our streets. As we consider how to invest $78.8 million this year in COVID relief resources, and $52 million in new homelessness services funding, I believe an expanded, coordinated network of alternative shelter must be part of the conversation.

In terms of our approach to shelter in general, we have learned a lot of lessons throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, historically, it has been challenging to locate organized, outdoor alternative shelter spaces on public land where people can sleep and find respite. But during the pandemic we quickly stood up three such sites, and we offered an opportunity for community innovation in the arena of shelter through a public request for alternative shelter proposals. These are important incremental steps we should build on as we create and commit to plans to meet the needs of people who continue to struggle each and every day on our streets.

Public Involvement

Hearing from the community is extremely important in informing my perspective, and I would very much like to hear from you about this year’s budget. You can make your voice heard in several ways:

District 1 budget forums: You can share your thoughts with me directly at one of four open forums my office will host over the coming month. Please RSVP before the event. These are scheduled for:

  • Saturday May 8th, 9:30 - 10:30am

  • Thursday May 13th, 12:00 - 1:00pm

  • Tuesday May 18th, 5:00 - 6:00pm

  • Sunday May 23rd, 3:30 - 4:30pm

Public Hearings: You can share your thoughts about the budget by testifying at one of two virtual public budget hearings:

Tune in to work sessions: During budget work sessions, leaders from County departments present an overview about the services they provide, how effective those services have been, and their major opportunities and challenges. You can find the full budget calendar here: https://multco.us/budget/calendar, and tune into all budget activities online

Contact me directly: And of course, you can always contact my office directly to share your feedback, ideas, thoughts, concerns and questions by email at district1@multco.us or by phone at (503) 988-5220.

The next month will bring a lot of challenging decisions and incredible opportunities to support this community. I hope you will share your ideas, opinions and thoughts with me on the budget and on anything else that matters to you in our County.

In good health,

Sharon 


Commissioner Sharon Meieran Newsletter - March 2021 
 

Greetings friends,

As the weather warms and we continue our incremental progress to recover from the pandemic, I’m increasingly finding sources of inspiration, resilience and hope.

But, there have also been acts of violence and hate that continue to shake us to our core, and I want to acknowledge Soon Chung Park, Hyun Chong Grant, Soon cha Kim, Yong Eh Yoo, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Ashley Yaun and Paul Andre Michels, who were murdered earlier this month in Atlanta in shootings fueled by anti-Asian hate. In the wake of the shootings, my fellow Commissioners Susheela Jayapal and Lori Stegmann spoke to their own experiences as Asian American women who have felt the impacts of racism personally, and are facing today’s climate of heightened fear. Our Board issued a statement condemning anti-Asian hate and mourning the tragic killings in Atlanta.

On a different note, I want to recognize today as International Transgender Day of Visibility (TDOV). Held annually on March 31, this is a time to celebrate transgender and non-binary people around the world, and bring awareness to the work that is needed to eliminate the discrimination and violence that trans people face. TDOV is personally meaningful to me this year, as I support a close family member in exploring their gender identity and their own process of transitioning. The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners will consider a proclamation tomorrow (Thursday, 4/1) honoring TDOV, and I invite you to tune in to join us.

March has been chock full of advocacy, at all levels. I will focus this newsletter on several ways advocacy has manifested for me this month through my work at Multnomah County.

Frequent Users Systems Engagement (FUSE)
FUSE is a national initiative, started by the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH). The goal of FUSE is to identify the people who most frequently come into contact with homelessness, healthcare, and criminal justice systems, often at great cost, both financially and in terms of individual trauma and suffering. Ultimately, this data can be used to support coordinated systems solutions to more effectively serve the people who our systems are failing, and also to most effectively use our limited resources.

My office has championed FUSE since its launch, as part of a larger vision of better serving people who fall through multiple cracks across many systems. Our local FUSE initiative has been underway since 2018, and involves a partnership between CSH, the Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS), Health Share of Oregon and Multnomah County’s Local Public Safety Coordinating Council (LPSCC). The FUSE analysis was completed and presented to our Board this month, which was a very exciting milestone.

As an emergency physician, it did not surprise me that people who are the most frequent users of ERs are also most frequently cycling through homelessness and through our jails. But FUSE demonstrated this starkly and in a data-driven way. Being in supportive housing keeps people from cycling through multiple systems. Supportive housing is the pivot point - avoidable emergency department visits, jail bookings, and hospitalizations all dropped significantly once people were housed.

FUSE makes the case - objectively - for all of our systems to coordinate more effectively, and to invest in supportive housing. I believe this is the approach we must take with regard to prioritizing investments through the Metro Supportive Housing Services Program, and an approach I will continue to use my voice to support.

Legislative issues

Since my last legislative update in February, I have testified on a number of additional important topics before the Oregon State Legislature:

  • OHA Budget - Behavioral Health: I testified on behalf of Multnomah County and as the co-chair of the Association of Oregon Counties’ Health and Human Services Steering Committee on the Oregon Health Authority budget bill (HB 5024) regarding Behavioral Health and the Oregon State Hospital. My testimony focused on advocating for community-based behavioral health resources. Oregon has long recognized the value of preventative physical healthcare -- we know that investing in upstream preventative services leads to better outcomes and cost savings. The same is true with regard to behavioral healthcare, yet our funding priorities are often backwards -- we look first to cut the services that are least expensive and most effective, while safeguarding exorbitantly costful institutional care.
  • Safe firearm storage: I provided written testimony in support of HB 2510 which would require safe storage of firearms, reporting of the loss or theft of a firearm, and supervision of minors using firearms. As an ER doctor, I have seen the devastating impact of gun violence firsthand when treating people who have suffered from gunshot wounds and bearing witness to their families’ grief. We know that suicide is a leading cause of death among Oregon youth, that a suicide attempt is often an impulsive act when someone is in crisis, and risk increases with access to a highly lethal agent. It is indisputable that reducing an individual’s ready access to a firearm greatly reduces the likelihood of that person dying by suicide.
  • Alcohol and cancer risks: I testified in support of HB 3297 which would require the Oregon Liquor Control Commission and Oregon Health Authority to study alcohol labeling requirements that would include printed advisories regarding the dangers of alcohol. There is ample evidence for the myriad health risks associated with alcohol use, and we have known that alcohol causes cancer for several decades. Yet, there is a major disconnect between the very real risks of alcohol use and the public’s perception of those risks. A comprehensive, public health approach to reducing the harms associated with alcohol must include improved education and communication to promote awareness of cancer risks.
  • COVID-19 recovery - county perspective: I testified before the House Subcommittee on COVID-19 about local government and reopening. I was joined by Commissioner Mark Bennett from Baker County, OR, and it was remarkable how many challenges, needs, and lessons learned are shared across rural and urban environments. My testimony focused on our continued public health infrastructure needs, financial and policy support for housing and small business, and how we must leverage this pandemic as a learning opportunity to improve coordination, communication, and reduce silos.
  • Peer Respite: I testified in support of a concept that is very important to me -- peer respite services. Last month I testified for HB 2980, and this month I had the opportunity to support a companion Senate Bill (SB 680). These bills are the result of years of committed advocacy by people with lived experience, and I am always proud to lend my voice to this work. Peer-staffed crisis respite is proven to reduce rates of Medicaid-funded hospitalizations and health expenditures for people who access the respite. We should consider these kinds of services an essential part of our system of care that make other services more effective, and I hope to see this legislation advance to fund more peer delivered services.
  • Improving access to HIV preventive medications: I testified in support of HB 2958 which would improve access to HIV preventive medications including PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis). As we fight to end the HIV epidemic, removing barriers to life saving medications is crucial. This is especially important for people who experience marginalization, discrimination, and other challenges to receiving basic healthcare. We need to ensure that medications like PrEP and PEP are truly accessible -- meaning available, affordable and convenient -- in as many places as possible, and without barriers for those who need them.

Using Our Voices

As County Commissioners, we sometimes do not have the authority to directly influence some of the issues that are important to our community, but we can exercise our individual and collective voices to raise awareness and advocate for those issues. I was involved in two particularly meaningful advocacy efforts this past month.

  • The Portland Area Workers Rights Board panel supporting Providence nurses: The Portland Area Workers Rights Board (WRB), convened by Portland Jobs With Justice, is designed to “bring to light and respond to injustices in the workplace.” Earlier this year, nurses working for Providence Health & Services throughout the state of Oregon contacted the WRB about serious concerns with Providence's treatment of nurses and patients on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic. In January, we heard directly from nurses about their experiences. In February, I stood in solidarity with nurses at a rally to support their demands for adequate workplace protections and support. And this month, I participated in a virtual hearing -- Protect Nurses, Protect The Community: A Workers' Rights Board hearing on Providence and their response to nurses and COVID-19 -- during which we approved a resolution affirming the experiences of nurses and calling on Providence to agree in writing to implement a nurses’ bill of rights for COVID-19 protections.
  • Letter to Homeland Security regarding federal agents’ use of tear gas: Last month, I was contacted by constituents in my district who shared concerns about the use of chemical munitions by federal law enforcement around the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in my district, directly adjacent to the K-8 Cottonwood School of Civics and Science and in close proximity to an affordable housing complex that is home to many Veterans. This ICE facility has been the site of numerous protests, during which federal law enforcement officers have deployed tear gas as a method of crowd control. Physical debris and residual toxic chemicals have been found on the Cottonwood schoolyard -- including teargas residue and canisters -- which could pose a health risk to young children, teachers, and the surrounding neighborhood. We do not have any legal authority at the local level to influence the actions of federal law enforcement officers and the tactics they use. However, we can speak with a strong, unified voice to demand change. I spearheaded a letter from the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners outlining our concerns about the use of tear gas in residential neighborhoods, parks, and other places across Multnomah County where people live, work, and play. The letter calls on new Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, to prohibit the use of chemical weapons in proximity to schools, residential neighborhoods, and other locations near vulnerable populations. The letter also requests that DHS address the environmental and other health impacts of CS gas that’s been deployed - including transparent information sharing and direct environmental remediation.


As I write this Newsletter, spring has sprung, more people are getting vaccinated, and the sun is shining. I am experiencing some cautious optimism. But this is where it’s imperative that we don’t lose sight of the end game, and that we remain vigilant - Covid continues, and in fact cases have begun to creep up as people experience a false sense of security that we’re “out of the woods.” We are so close, but we are by no means at the finish line. I urge you to take advantage of being outdoors, gardening, exercising, walking with friends in a socially distanced and appropriate way. AND continue to wear masks, wash your hands, sanitize surfaces, and engage in the behaviors that, sadly, have become second nature to us over the past year.

There’s a lot going on, and as always I welcome your questions, ideas, thoughts and concerns. Happy spring!

In Good Health,

Sharon


Commissioner Sharon Meieran Newsletter - February 2021 

Greetings friends,

February has been quite a month - no surprise there, what month hasn’t been over the past year! There has been a lot of activity “in” my office, even though it continues to happen mostly from the confines of my team’s respective homes. The 2021 full Legislative Session has begun, and I’ve already testified on a number of important bills, including gun safety, public healthpeer respite, and criminal justice reform. I met with a group of Multnomah County Specialty Court Judges, and had an enlightening discussion about what they are seeing from their unique perspectives on the bench, and how they can contribute to improving our systems for the vulnerable and marginalized individuals who cycle through their courts. I’ve continued to be frustrated by the state’s vaccine prioritization and rollout, particularly for vulnerable seniors - in response, I proposed a plan for medical volunteers to do mobile outreach to facilities housing home-bound seniors and people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and it’s hitting the ground soon in Multnomah County. More on this next month!

This month, emergency planning has been foremost on my mind as we emerge from a winter storm that reminded us how vulnerable we all are in the event of a natural disaster. Planning and preparedness will be the focus of this newsletter.

Multnomah County Severe Weather Response 

This month, our region saw our first stretch of severe winter weather. While it can be beautiful, winter weather can also cause inconvenience and disruption for many, and can be dangerous and deadly for some - especially for people living unsheltered. In my October newsletter I detailed some of the unique COVID-related challenges Multnomah County faced in planning for severe weather, and this month we put our planning to the test. I am proud to say that Multnomah County’s community-wide response was incredible.Before the weather turned, the Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) secured large quantities of inclement weather gear and began distribution to outreach providers, shelters, motels serving people with COVID, and others. In early February, JOHS began coordinated outreach to distribute gear and shelter information to people living outside. In the week from February 8 - February 15, the County provided 93 different groups with supplies such as tents, tarps, socks, gloves, and sleeping bags.In addition, we also quickly stood up three new shelter sites at the Oregon Convention Center, Metro parking garage, and in the Arbor Lodge neighborhood in North Portland. All shelters followed physical distancing and face covering requirements, and we were able to establish rapid COVID testing at the Oregon Convention Center (a small bright spot in a very challenging moment: there were zero positive tests among those seeking shelter!).None of this would be possible without the dedication of county employees, organizations and community members who stepped up: 

  • 86 County Staff, 20 City of Portland Staff, and 105 community volunteers provided 24/7 essential staffing to keep shelters open and welcome people indoors.
  • Transition Projects ran our largest shelter site at the Oregon Convention Center.
  • Metro provided critical partnership and space to stand up our first open air shelter.
  • 211 coordinated access to shelters, motels, and transportation.
  • Portland Fire & Rescue conducted rapid testing at OCC and supported transportation.
  • Medical Reserve Corps partnered on-site to provide additional support.
  • Rockwood CDCCultivate Initiatives, and Sunrise Center supported a 24/7 warming center, gear distribution, and transportation staging from East County.
  • Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare supported staff, motel participants, and transportation efforts.
  • And I am sure there were countless others who pitched in behind the scenes!

Over the course of 5 nights of severe weather, we served hundreds of people, and I am certain that this work saved lives. I am deeply grateful for the collaboration and heart that so many people brought to this response.

Neighborhood Emergency Teams

For some, the ice storm was a humbling realization that they were underprepared for an emergency. One powerful way to learn about and engage in emergency planning and response is through Neighborhood Emergency Teams (NETs). NETs consist of volunteers organized by neighborhoods to provide emergency assistance to their own families and immediate neighbors. NET members are trained to save lives and property until professional responders can arrive. This is a great opportunity, and I encourage you to connect with this group.

Regional Approach

I am the Multnomah County Board’s liaison to the Policy Committee of our Regional Disaster Preparedness Organization (RDPO). The purpose of the RDPO’s vision is a secure and disaster-resilient region in which local agencies, organizations, and communities are coordinated and prepared to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from threats and hazards of great risk to the Portland Metropolitan Region. At the regional level, I’ve been particularly involved in work related to the potential risk from fossil fuel infrastructure in what’s known as the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub in Northwest Portland.While so much of our capacity has been dedicated to the COVID-19 pandemic disaster response over the past year, we are beginning to reground ourselves in important proactive work. Critically, our recent discussions have centered on equity - recognizing the disparate impact of disasters on marginalized communities, and committing to planning and preparedness that explicitly addresses and mitigates inequitable outcomes. At our Winter RDPO Policy Committee meeting, we adopted an Equity Resolution that directly acknowledges the disproportionate impacts of disasters on Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Pacific Islander and other communities of color, seniors, people with disabilities, the houseless, and members of the LGBTQ community and commits the RDPO to funding, partnerships, outreach, and other work to support equitable outcomes.

A Special Case - the “Eviction Tsunami”

“It’s not a question of if, but when.” How often have we heard that statement in relation to the Cascadia subduction zone earthquake our region will face? The inevitability of natural disasters drives disaster preparedness and planning efforts at the national, state and local levels. But unlike the natural disasters we routinely plan for, we have an opportunity to provide financial and legal protections to mitigate the “eviction tsunami” that could otherwise displace tens of thousands of people when eviction moratoria expire.

A recent report from Portland State University’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative report describes the staggering scale of unpaid rent burden, and brings potential displacement into sharp focus - approximately 89,000 Oregon households owe back rent, and owe as much as $378 million (and growing) in back rent. Once eviction moratoria and grace periods expire, many Oregonians who are behind in their rent and have lost their incomes during the pandemic will not be able to pay their past or ongoing rent. Right now, landlords who are owed rent may apply for compensation through Oregon Housing and Community Services through March 5th, 2021. Measures like this are necessary, but still insufficient.

Along with my fellow Commissioners, I am calling on the Governor and legislative leaders to create a statewide grace period of at least six months for repayment of residential rent debt, beginning at the conclusion of the COVID emergency. To be clear, a grace period alone will not be enough to protect all renters and landlords from the economic impacts of COVID. However, quick action would provide short-term stability while longer term strategies are implemented and adequate funding is secured - and the state needs to be analyzing data and actively planning for various scenarios, depending upon how much federal support we are able to secure.

Immediate Needs - Alternative Shelter

And finally, as we talk about emergency preparedness and our approach to extreme weather, I feel compelled to take the time to reflect on those who are houseless and did not make it through this past storm. Only weeks ago a homeless man in a “makeshift shelter” burned to death while trying to keep himself warm. This is unacceptable. The conditions on our streets constitute a humanitarian crisis, and we - local government and the community - must do more to reduce the harm experienced by people living unsheltered. 

I have consistently called for additional hygiene, public health, and alternative shelter options - especially as we strive toward the long-term solutions we know truly end people’s homelessness. Traditional indoor shelters don’t meet some people’s needs for a multitude of reasons, and I feel it is our absolute duty to provide safety and dignity to people experiencing homelessness. As one step that brings innovation and opinions from community to the table, I’ve worked with Chair Kafoury, Mayor Wheeler, and Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan on a plan to dedicate funding for new innovative shelter ideas that come from community (e.g. “villages,” safe parking programs, modular shelters, etc.). If you want to submit proposals for addressing unsheltered homelessness in Multnomah County, you can learn more here. Proposals are due by March 9.

As always, I welcome your thoughts, ideas, questions, and concerns. Please let me know what you’re thinking about!

In Good Health,

Sharon 


Commissioner Sharon Meieran Newsletter - January 2021 

Greetings friends,

This month has brought the beginning of a new year, the surreality of a literal assault on our democracy, the beginning of a new federal administration, and hope for a new chapter in the history of our country. It has been a tremendous relief and joy to hear a steady beat of different news coming from the White House - rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, reversing the “global gag rule” that restricted women’s access to healthcare, a national COVID-19 response plan, plans for immigration reform, and countless other actions in the first week in office. A recent release, a “Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking” is particularly striking to me, both in title and in substance. This kind of basic values statement reaffirming science and integrity over politics and misinformation is something we must not take for granted. In President Biden’s inaugural address, he promised that “we will lead not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” I am heartened by leadership rooted in humility, compassion, and fact, and cautiously hopeful for the months and years ahead.  

This month also marks the beginning of my second term in office, and I’m energized to continue my work for Multnomah County. There are so many paths this newsletter could take, but there are two pressing issues I want to address: COVID-19 vaccinations and eviction moratoria. 

COVID-19 vaccine

There was understandable jubilation when vaccines were approved to protect against COVID-19. Since then, optimism has been somewhat tempered by confusion and concern. In Oregon, it is not an exaggeration to say that information has changed virtually every day, and there is no single source of information about how vaccines are being prioritized and how one can go about getting vaccinated. I have received a lot of questions about Multnomah County’s role and responsibilities, and I have very strong feelings about how the state has handled vaccine prioritization and distribution. 

While Multnomah County partners with the State of Oregon and local healthcare systems to coordinate vaccine distribution, currently most vaccines are directly allocated to and administered by individual hospital systems. Multnomah County as an organization only receives a limited amount of vaccines, mostly for distribution to its own employees and certain subcontractors. As the Local Public Health Authority, Multnomah County is working to ensure that individuals who had already been prioritized to receive vaccination do not fall through the cracks. We are also striving to highlight gaps and inequities we see in the state’s public health strategy. To that end, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners recently sent a letter to Governor Brown expressing serious concerns about expanded eligibility for vaccines, while there are still tens of thousands of people at the highest priority level in the Portland Metro area who have not received their first dose of vaccine. I find it unacceptable that we would dramatically expand eligibility before we have adequately protected those most at risk. 

At this point, there is clear evidence about who is most harmed by COVID-19 and who is most at risk for severe illness and death from the disease - older adults, people in congregate living facilities, historically marginalized and underserved communities, particularly Black, Indigenous and other people of color, immigrants and refugees, and essential frontline workers. We have tools to support sound decision-making, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guiding ethical principles for allocating a limited supply of vaccines, and the vast majority of other states have chosen to prioritize older adults for receiving vaccinations. This is smart, lifesaving policy and I am deeply concerned that the Governor and the Oregon Health Authority are instead prioritizing vaccinating educators and school staff at the expense of protecting older adults. 

We are all so ready to put the pandemic behind us, and yet we continue to deal with new Covid-related stresses - the emergence of new strains of the virus, the scarcity of our vaccine supplies, uncertainty regarding schools reopening, and the looming uphill climb for economic recovery. Please stay vigilant and continue to take precautions. I will continue to advocate for effective, evidence-based public health strategies to guide our response to the pandemic, and I will continue to share updates.

Eviction moratoria

I personally find much of the language surrounding moratoria (plural of “moratorium”) confusing, so I want to provide some definitions up front to help clarify.  A “moratorium” allows people to defer paying rent for a period of time, but the rent will still become due. This differs from “forgiveness” of an obligation to pay rent, which would mean that people would not have to pay rent at all. Finally, a “grace period” provides additional time for people to pay rent after a moratorium expires.

At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, Multnomah County adopted a local moratorium on residential evictions to ensure that renters would not lose their housing if they were unable to make rent payments for reasons related to COVID. Subsequently, a statewide moratorium was enacted which provided similar protections. Since March, there have been a number of local and state actions extending the protections, and Multnomah County has sought to be aligned with the state.  

On December 17, 2020, it was not clear that the state would extend its eviction moratorium, and Multnomah County extended its own moratorium to protect Multnomah County tenants in case the state did not act. A few days later, on December 21, the Oregon Legislature passed House Bill 4401. HB 4401 extended the statewide moratorium on residential evictions, but differs from our local moratorium in four ways: (1) it requires that tenants sign a “Declaration of Financial Hardship for Eviction Protection” form stating that they are unable to afford their rent due to Covid in order to be protected from eviction; (2) it does not provide a grace period for repayment of rent at the end of the moratorium; (3) it allows for some evictions due to owner move-in, demolition/renovation and property sale; and (4) it created a rent assistance fund for both landlords and tenants.

On January 14, 2021, I was part of the majority of Commissioners who voted to rescind Multnomah County’s local eviction moratorium. I received a number of questions about this action, and I want to clarify why I supported it. 

House Bill 4401 applies across the state, including in Multnomah County, and the provisions of HB 4401 are in effect regardless of the existence of any local moratorium. Because HB 4401 applies statewide, I felt that keeping our moratorium in place could create dangerous confusion and a false sense of security for tenants who would still be subject to all the new requirements under the state law. Therefore, I voted to rescind Multnomah County’s moratorium in order to ensure tenants did not rely on Multnomah County’s moratorium to their detriment. 

With regard to the grace period, however, my fellow Commissioners and I are committed to ensuring there is a grace period for repayment of rent. I hope such a protection will be enacted at the state level, but regardless of state action, we will be taking steps to ensure this protection remains in place in Multnomah County. With regard to the other provisions under state law (the Declaration requirement and the exceptions to the eviction moratorium), we are working with community partners, advocates, and tenant rights organizations to ensure tenants and landlords are supported and understand their rights and resources.

I also want to raise a related consideration - how are we planning for what has been described as the “eviction tsunami” when rents become due? Both landlords and tenants should know that financial relief will soon be made available through Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS). However, it is clear that the current allocation to the OHCS fund is not sufficient to meet the need. We need substantial federal investment in order to prevent wide scale evictions when unpaid rent ultimately becomes due. I will continue to be engaged in planning at the county and state levels around financial relief for tenants and landlords to prevent housing instability.

Closing thoughts

The beginning of this year has been portentous, combining the harrowing assault in Washington, DC, with the aspiration of an administration promoting equity, inclusion, integrity, science and vision. As we look forward to seismic shifts at the federal level, I start my second term energized and resolute in my commitment to serving the residents of Multnomah County.

Please continue to reach out (or reach out for the first time if you haven’t before!) - I love to hear your thoughts, questions, concerns and perspectives.

In Good Health,

Sharon 


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