Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson delivered her first State of the County address Tuesday, expressing optimism in the collaboration and focused strategies she is marshaling to confront the significant community challenges laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Chair took the stage just after 5 p.m. at the Franklin High School Theater in southeast Portland where more than 300 people gathered for the first in-person State of the County since 2019. Since taking office in January, the Chair has confronted a cascade of issues around homelessness, animal services, community violence and behavioral health.
But she laid out a course, both in her proposed Executive Budget and in her philosophy of governing, that with community wisdom, stronger government partnerships, and a commitment to accountability, “a more just recovery is possible and more justice is possible.’
The value of partnerships was evident in the speech’s community setting and the Chair’s call out of County Commissioners Sharon Meieran, Susheela Jayapal, Diane Rosenbaum, Lori Stegmann and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who were in attendance. Portland Public School Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero introduced the Chair and in her speech, the Chair described their shared concern with children’s lives right now.
“We live in a country where income inequality is the highest it’s been in decades. Where gun-violence has overtaken car accidents as the number one killer of young people. Where life expectancy — along with birth rates — are falling,’’ Chair Vega Pederson said. “I agree with Superintendent Guerrero that we have a “children and family crisis” that we must work together to solve.”
And she asserted that even as the County tackles the emergencies the community faces, the County’s priorities must keep moving upstream through investment in the life-changing support for children and families that school-based health centers, SUN Community schools and the Preschool for All program deliver.
The County funds 38 mental health programs in six school districts for kids, and will allocate funds to keep four SUN school programs open that would otherwise close. And it is deeply investing in the physical sites and raising workforce wages to support the universal preschool that voters approved in 2020 and the County has been implementing.
‘“Because we know our investments in early childhood education pay this community back many times over in educational achievement and stability, with every $1 spent today resulting in $7 in future savings,’’ the Chair said.
In her budget, the Chair has proposed doubling the number of available preschool slots in the 2023-24 school year to 1,400.
“The fact that Multnomah County has made an investment upstream to prioritize universal preschool by 2030 creates a two-generation solution that we’re already seeing pay dividends.”
She then shared the experience of Marilynn Cha, a Preschool for All mom in the audience, who shared the thrill of getting an opportunity her family could not otherwise afford.
Marylynn told County staff that having her daughter enroll in preschool “has meant everything for me and my family. It has helped my husband and I with our work and helped develop my daughter educationally. This has been a success and we’re looking forward to re-enrolling her into next year as well."
Homelessness and behavioral health
“When people ask what my plan for homelessness is, every strategy, program and initiative is rooted in partnership, accountability and urgency to meet this moment” Chair Vega Pederson said.
Throughout the Chair’s remarks, she highlighted her close working relationship with Mayor Wheeler — “our teams are meeting almost daily” and that for too long, leaders have been having a conversation in individual jurisdictions that is not serving our needs or the needs of community-members.
“People who live in this community shouldn’t be asked to consider whose jurisdiction their problem falls under or who’s responsible for helping them solve it.
Portland is 24th in the nation for the rate of homelessness among cities with over 100,000 people, accounting for a quarter of the homeless population in Oregon.
The Chair said that takes a toll across the region, which is why she is working in close partnership with the City of Portland, the State of Oregon, emergency management and regional jurisdictional partners as a Multi-Agency Coordinating (MAC) group focused on reducing unsheltered homelessness.
This MAC group will coordinate an infusion of Supportive Housing Services and state dollars to follow through on our “Housing Multnomah Now,” initiative.
Led by the Joint Office of Homeless Services through the MAC group, Housing Multnomah Now is a “bold” $32 million, 12-month plan to unify local and state efforts to reduce unsheltered homelessness starting in Portland’s central city. The goal is to move those living unsheltered in a specific geographic area directly into supportive housing.
The program uses a by-name list and a targeted timeline to provide options, support and a path connecting people directly to housing so we stop the shuffle of moving people from one location to another as they’re living outside.
“We are close to confirming our first geographic site in the central city,’’ the Chair said. From there, Housing Multnomah Now will expand to helping those unhoused in East County.
The combined investment is expected to rehouse 545 households and create 140 shelter beds by the end of this year.
The plan includes incentives for landlords to increase available housing, guaranteed rental subsidies, and stability-focused wraparound services to help keep people housed long-term. And Housing Multnomah Now’s focus on housing placement supports and strengthens our shelter system.
Funding devoted to this effort will help limit the length of stay in all shelters by eliminating bottlenecks that keep people from being housed.
“We’ll make better use of the beds we already have, and provide safe sleep options for more people in a time when they need them most.”
Overall the Chair is proposing investing $128 million dollars for housing placements, rent assistance and support services to meet those experiencing homelessness on the streets, in vehicles, in shelter beds – and assist them to move into permanent housing and help them stay there. Another $87 million is directed toward alternative shelter, motel-based shelter and vital outreach on the ground every day.
Should all beds come online as budgeted and predicted — including all beds funded through other sources — this will support more than 2,500 beds of year-round shelter with wraparound services this calendar year.
Strengthening data, infrastructure and internal collaboration
The Chair also lifted up her plans across the County to better serve the community and taxpayers by:
- Creating a data task force to track, inform and hold the County accountable for our homeless service work.
- Increasing staff for animal care at Multnomah County Animal Services 31% to address shortages and gaps in care.
- Taking a “one-county” approach to our community safety investments, spreading them across the Department of Community Justice, the Multnomah County District Attorney, the Multnomah County Sheriff, the Department of Human Services, and the Health Department.
- Supporting the Elections Division’s implementation of ranked-choice voting
- Stabilizing the Behavioral Health Resource Center as it expands to include a shelter and bridge housing later this spring.
- Improving the safety, trust, belonging and respect County employees feel in their work.
And finally, the Chair called upon community members to join her, first at County budget hearings beginning tonight and at every level where they can engage in working for a better future.
“There’s not a person joining us tonight who doesn’t have an opportunity, as much as any of us do, to lift up your community,’’ Chair Vega Pederson said. “I appreciate the work you’re already doing, and I hope in response to community needs and investment, you’ll be inspired to do even more.”