The virtual address — sponsored by the City Club of Portland — comes in the midst of an unprecedented emergency that has strained health systems, shuttered schools, upended careers, and completely transformed daily life in a matter of weeks.
In a departure from previous speeches, this year’s address focused on just one subject: the County’s response to COVID-19. It’s that response, Chair Kafoury said, that best defines the County’s mission and values. Actions taken include a residential eviction moratorium, a deferral of business income taxes for the duration of the crisis, and rapid work to create spaces for shelter beds.
To encourage physical distancing, the County has also reduced the jail population 30 percent by granting release to those who could be safely supervised in the community. The County has also suspended supervision fees for justice-involved individuals.
“What we’re doing, and how we’re doing it, says a whole lot about who Multnomah County is and always has been,” Chair Kafoury said. “About our values, which are enduring; about our role, which is steady; and about our dedication to serving the community, which has never flagged.”
In mere weeks, Chair Kafoury said, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed crises and disparities that have been festering in the community sometimes for years and decades. In many cases, the virus and its toll have worsened those disparities.
Domestic violence, homelessness, food insecurity, underemployment, overincarceration, and the shortcomings of the underfunded American safety net system all intersect with the pandemic. The crisis has also exposed racial disparities and inequities. In response, Multnomah County has stepped up its response to protect the community’s most vulnerable.
“In short order, the arrival of COVID-19 has done more than exacerbate the disparities and inequities that people experience,” Chair Kafoury said. “It’s thrown back the curtain so that no one can deny that these crises exist in every community.”
Before the first case of COVID-19 was detected in Multnomah County, or even in Oregon, County leaders worked with the Public Health division and Emergency Management to monitor the disease’s spread and coordinate the County’s response.
The County has launched an Emergency Operations Center and a public website to keep residents informed on COVID-19 and the novel coronavirus and provide guidance for businesses, care facilities, health workers, renters, shelters, people without shelter, and more. Information has been translated into 24 languages, and the County is working on creating audio in 20 additional languages.
Every step of the way, Chair Kafoury said, the County has prioritized equity by working with an advisory board to ensure communities of color are having their needs addressed. “Public Health has kept equity at the forefront,” she said. “Because it’s not just a lens we occasionally look through, but a way of seeing the world and approaching our work in partnership with those we serve.”
Multiple times a week, the County has held press briefings with health experts, including Tri-County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines, to provide updates on COVID-19 and the actions the County and its partners are taking to protect vulnerable populations.
Housing and Shelter
“My highest priority, from the beginning, has been to slow the spread of this virus,’’ Chair Kafoury said. “We know a key strategy is to stay home. But people who don’t have a home can’t stay in one.”
That’s why she declared a state of emergency. And it’s why, on March 17, she ordered a temporary moratorium on residential evictions. She also made clear that no landlord or hotel owner could refuse someone whose housing costs are being paid by the County or the City of Portland.
That decision came days before waves of business closures forced tens of thousands of Oregonians, and millions of Americans, into unemployment queues — wondering how they’d otherwise stay in their homes during what’s likely the most frightening time in their lives.
“Housing is probably the single most important piece of financial and emotional security we can provide,” Chair Kafoury said, “especially as an unprecedented number of people lose their jobs or see their incomes plummet. So I’m making sure people can stay in their housing during this pandemic. It is a public health imperative.”
And for the thousands of neighbors already experiencing homelessness, now forced to endure an additional crisis amid a pandemic, the County has been just as “laser-focused” in acting, Chair Kafoury said.
People who are homeless are no more likely than anyone else to transmit COVID-19. But because many people experiencing homelessness are older or have a higher share of underlying health conditions, without help, they are far more vulnerable to serious, life-threatening symptoms.
Over several days in early March, the County worked with 14 agencies and volunteer groups to coordinate what became a massive street outreach mission. Those teams — equipped by the Joint Office of Homeless Services’ supply depot — carved up the County map and hit every nook and cranny. Overall, they reached 2,500 people, providing hygiene products and information.
At the same time, the County worked to create safer environments for some 1,000 adults living in 24-hour congregate shelters, giving them space to practice physical distancing where they sleep, eat and spend time during the day.
The County kept winter shelters open. And in just two weeks’ time, the County worked to spread hundreds of beds to new locations that would have otherwise gone unused because of the COVID shutdown: Metro’s Oregon Convention Center, and the City of Portland’s Charles Jordan, East Portland and Mt. Scott Community Centers.
The County is also partnering with hotels, such as the Jupiter Hotel, to provide shelter for people with symptoms, the result of rapid-fire planning work and a call to the community.
“One morning David Mogg from the Jupiter Hotel heard me on the radio asking for hotel space where medically vulnerable shelter residents could stay,” Chair Kafoury said. “He called my office, and by 3 o’clock that afternoon, we had an agreement.”
County employees have been stepping up, too, Chair Kafoury said. More than 200 have said they’ll take a shift at one of the new shelter sites.
They’ve been instrumental in not just launching the shelters, setting up cots and taping physical-distancing grids onto the floor, but also in sustaining them with their compassion and willingness to do whatever’s necessary to serve those in need.
Chair Kafoury shared a message from one of those employees, Percy Winters, Jr., who manages contracts in the Health Department and also serves as president of AFSCME Local 88: “If there’s anything out there that you can do — you can be a part of this. Help out — they need you, we need you,” Winters said.
“We have seen that same generosity in the hundreds of non-profit workers and volunteers who are keeping our shelters, meal programs, supportive housing and outreach programs going during this critical time,” Chair Kafoury said. “They have met uncertainty and fear with courage and grace. Thank you.”
Families and older adults
With businesses shuttered and schools closed, the need for the County’s services is higher than ever. In response to the crisis, the County has stood up to ensure vulnerable communities get the services they need. Whenever possible the County has kept doors open for those who need to access services in person. In some cases, frontline workers are serving clients remotely and providing virtual care or telemedicine.
School closures have threatened access to the County’s Student Health Centers, but the County has worked to keep one open — Parkrose High School — to provide critical mental health and primary care services to young people in need. The County’s newest school based health center, at Reynolds High School, is still scheduled to open on time this fall.
The County has made $100,000 in emergency hotel vouchers available for survivors of family violence. The SUN program has quadrupled its efforts to provide food boxes, helping more than 1,500 families in need. Volunteers have stepped up to ensure older adults get meals delivered to their doorsteps.
“Food insecurity transcends age,” Chair Kafoury said. “The disruption of daily life caused by COVID-19 puts older adults in our community at risk of going without food, and without human connection, too. Few understand this better than the County’s Aging, Disability & Veterans Services Division, which is leveraging its network of partners to reach out to older adults, even those who aren’t already engaged with our services.”
The challenges posed by COVID-19 are likely to last for years to come. As a result of the pandemic, the County will need to look at new ways to spread its budget further and work with its state and federal leaders to continue serving the community.
No matter what happens, Chair Kafoury said, the County will continue to feed those who are hungry, support the needs of people in mental health and addiction treatment, and protect public health.
Shelter and housing services for people who are homeless, reintegration for people leaving incarceration, accessible healthcare, marriage licenses and pet adoptions have been — and will continue to be — key County priorities.
Chair Kafoury pointed to ways everyone can stay connected with their community: by tending to their neighbors, practicing patience and voting in the May election.
“This can be an inflection point – maybe more acutely, a reflection point, for us all to remember what is truly important,” Chair Kafoury said. “We are capable of emerging from this pandemic with an even clearer vision of who we want to be as a community. And together, Multnomah County is more than capable of achieving that vision.”