Chair calls for hope, equity as nation struggles with identity, local programs face cuts

April 21, 2017

Chair Deborah Kafoury gives the 2017 State of the County address.

Services for people in Multnomah County that are funded by the federal government are threatened with major cuts as President Donald Trump shifts investments from health and social services to national defense. They are the county’s central mandate – medical and mental health care, affordable and stable housing, protection for survivors of domestic violence, services for veterans.

“We have worked hard to put the county on sound financial footing, but we’re bracing for a storm,” Kafoury said Friday in her annual State of the County address, at the City Club of Portland. She said her initial reaction to the presidential election was devastation and fear.

But as Trump took the White House, voters in Multnomah County elected an all-woman board, a majority of whom are women of color. They are women who have taken up the fight for affordable health care, safe infrastructure, robust industry, empowered youth, and housing as a human right.

“We can come together for our children, for the air they breathe and the water they drink. For the education they require and the opportunity we can create. We can face our racist and homophobic past, and work for a more equitable and just future,” Kafoury said. “I’m ready to work with this board to tackle what lies ahead. And I can tell you it won’t be easy.”


Over two years, a regional partnership called A Home for Everyone found stable housing for 1,300 veterans, earning recognition from the White House for effectively ending veteran homelessness.

Daniel Kallunki shows why it matters. A Navy veteran, Kallunki went on to work as a diesel mechanic and supervisor at Pacific Power. Then, at 38, he began having trouble walking. After a visit to the emergency department, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

He couldn’t work, and fell behind on bills. He lost his apartment, and moved in with friends. He bounced around, staying with family, in transitional programs, in his car. Then he dialed a number for Transition Projects Veterans’ Hotline and enrolled in the federal program Supportive Services for Veteran Families. He got a housing voucher that landed him an apartment near his daughter. Once in stable housing, he was able to shift gears professionally. He completed an apprenticeship at Transition Projects and today works as a mentor there.

Federal support for homeless veterans may be cut under President Trump. “It sends a signal that we’re with you today, while you’re fighting for us,” Kafoury said. “But once you get home you’ll be forgotten.”

Stable and safe housing has been a central tenant of Kafoury’s tenure as Chair. She pushed for a merging of city and county resources to meet a growing demand for housing and rental assistance, creating the Joint Office of Homeless Services, which responded to 25,000 requests for service last year. The office has expanded its network of temporary shelters and more than quadrupled its investment in short-term rental assistance to help families avoid eviction.

Despite the threat of federal cuts, Kafoury said she’s made tough choices to maintain local support for housing services. “I’m counting on [Portland] Mayor Ted Wheeler and city commissioners to make good on the city’s commitment to this work.”

Housing instability hits kids hard. Their parents’ anxiety. Packing stuffed animals into cardboard boxes. Saying goodbye to friends as they pack off to other schools in more affordable neighborhoods – if such things still exist in Multnomah County.

The SUN program at Rigler Elementary

SUN Community Schools are the safety net for families, supporting parents with rental and food assistance; supporting children at 84 schools with tutoring and fun activities. More than half the county’s investment goes to culturally-specific programming.

“Investing in our kids is the right thing to do,” Kafoury said. “And it’s the financially smart thing to do.”

Healthy Communities

Research has long shown that incarceration doesn’t change an offender – at least not for the better. That’s why Multnomah County last year began shifting its investment away from jail beds and toward community programs such as the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, or LEAD®. The program gives drug users the opportunity to chose drug treatment instead of jail for low-level possession offenses.

Too often, the people brought to county jails are addicted to drugs or suffering mental illness. Disability Rights Oregon issued a report earlier this year on mistreatment of people with mental illness by jail staff. It prompted the Board of Commissioners to invest in more mental health counselors and closer coordination with community services.

Mental health is an integral part of a broader health care system. That system expanded under the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans have pledged to dismantle, to include 400,000 additional Oregonians in the past 3 years. “Accessible, affordable healthcare, that’s a family doctor. It’s free birth control and family planning, and it’s preventative care that stops problems before they occur,” Kafoury said.

It also means healthy food, such as farmer’s market beans and greens. Buying into an organic farm share is too expensive for more families, but not when it’s picked at Zenger Farms and sold at subsidized prices to clients at Multnomah County’s Mid-County Health Center. The partnership helped Angela Reed, who gained 70 pounds during her first pregnancy. After a season on fresh produce, she lost 50 pounds and said, “I feel better than I have in 10 years.”

But some families have even more fundamental concerns than healthy food. Last year glass companies in Portland were found to have emitted dangerous levels of toxins into the air, while old diesel-burning trucks, banned in other states, took to Oregon’s roads. Together with the City of Portland, Multnomah County pledged to transition to 100-percent renewable sources of energy by 2050.

Those efforts too may be undercut by President Trump, who has vowed to reverse course on the United States’ commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Challenging Times

Kafoury said the county has taken potential cuts into consideration, seeking to streamline services and protect vital programs and vulnerable communities.  Those include the immigrants and refugees who fear a national wave of anti-immigrant hate crimes and an uptick in deportations, including of people who have committed no crime and those protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Marveluz Fernandez and her son Jethro became U.S. citizens in 2016.

“I find it ironic that a nation whose economy was bolstered by immigrants is now tearing itself apart to vilify them,” Kafoury said.

In response, the county has reiterated its pledge to Oregon law, prohibiting law enforcement from helping federal immigration authorities in its effort to deport people who do not pose a public safety risk. It has asked federal lawmakers to protect residents from immigration enforcement in schools, health clinics, social service agencies and court houses. And it has invested $100,000 in local nonprofits offering know-your-rights workshops and low-cost immigration legal services.

Kafoury challenged local lawmakers, community leaders and residents to focus on making change at home.

“We’ve got to build a legacy worthy of our efforts and of passing along to our children. This isn’t a political imperative. It’s a moral one,” Kafoury said. “Because our children will inherit what we don’t accomplish.”

Did you miss Friday’s State of the County address?

Read Chair Kafoury’s prepared remarks.

View Chair Kafoury's address in its entirety below.