Dear Friends and Neighbors,
Much has been written about those who are doing extremely well during the COVID pandemic and those who are suffering the most, and with good reason. But two meetings I attended last week exemplified the dramatic economic inequality that’s playing a major role in the myriad problems facing our county and our nation.
Last week Multnomah County’s economist informed commissioners that the County has collected $30.4 million more than anticipated from our Business Income Tax (which taxes business revenues) between July 2020 and June 2021, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
Why? Well, there are several reasons. One is that companies cut costs in anticipation of an economic slowdown, but quickly rebounded with the same or higher revenues and lower costs. A second is that companies are making deals to shield profits ahead of anticipated higher taxes at the federal level.
Later that same afternoon, I met with leaders of Old Town’s four major cultural institutions, who wrote a letter to city and county officials asking for help dealing with the homelessness and mental health crises wreaking havoc on the area. Our meeting, in which the leaders shared specific examples of how their staff, their institutions and their neighbors living outside are impacted by what’s happening on our streets, took place just days before a man who claimed to be hearing voices and was under the influence of meth killed two people in Old Town.
These issues - wealth inequality, houselessness, trauma, mental health and substance abuse issues - are inextricably linked. Corporate greed fueling indifference to the needs of workers and local communities; houselessness driven by low wages, high rents, and economic insecurity; untreated or new trauma from living on the streets, causing further mental health issues, drug addiction, or both.
We are living through a new Gilded Age, with tremendous economic inequality, and the social unrest and substance abuse that comes with it.
But that means we do have a roadmap for how to get out of this. We must curtail corporate greed and extreme wealth disparities and regulate an economy that is off the rails. We must increase wages, benefits, and security for workers. We must provide social services needed to succeed in today’s world. And we must devote significant resources, but also re-envision, our mental health system, and soon.
As you know, we did similar work developing the Preschool for All program. We centered the experiences of those most in need. We’re investing in teachers and teacher assistants to provide this underpaid workforce with living wages and economic security. We’re taxing the wealthiest in our community to provide a universal benefit that will save families thousands of dollars a year while delivering quality, culturally responsive early learning opportunities for our kids. Now we must apply these lessons to other areas.
The other good news is that we will invest this unanticipated revenue back into the community immediately. The County is working with the City on an unprecedented $40 million fall spending plan that will invest in shelters, safe rest village sites, mental health services, trash removal, and more.
You will hear more details of this proposal within the next two weeks, and I will update you about those announcements as they happen.
PS: While there are important actions we can take at the local level, Congress must act to raise taxes on the most wealthy, regulate the economy, raise wages, and pass a robust social safety net bill. You can tell Congress to build an economy that works for everyday Oregonians here.
Mental Health Tour
Our mental health system is a core component of our social safety net. Yet I hear from too many in our community about challenges accessing services, particularly out-patient and community-based care.
I hear about the need for more patient-centered care, which could take the form of flexible clinical supports and voluntary drop-in programs, such as the “living room” model, or peer respite programs, which provide short-term peer support in a residential setting.
I hear confusion as to what services to access, which is why as we expand services, like Portland Street Response and the County’s mobile Mental Health Unit, we need to make sure our services are aligned and accountable, in a system already marked by confusion and silos.
A key investment that will offer immediate help, is the County’s Downtown Behavioral Health Resource Center, which will provide respite and treatment for people with mental illness and addiction issues, as well as laundry, showers, healthcare, referrals, peer-support services, emergency shelter, and transitional housing.
The BHRC is being developed in partnership with peer-run mental health nonprofits and is scheduled to open in 2022. You can read more about this important investment here.