Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury gave her final State of the County address Wednesday, April 13, after eight years serving as Chair — a historic tenure that has spanned a generational challenge in the COVID-19 pandemic, unprecedented climate-related emergencies, the community’s cries for a racial justice reckoning, and an enduring housing affordability and homelessness crisis.
As part of a multimedia presentation hosted by the City Club of Portland, she reflected on the County’s resiliency, showing up again and again to multiple weather crises. But she also praised the County for its crucial work to not just deliver services in the moment, but to go further and transform the community to make it more stable, healthier and more equitable.
“We do that by moving upstream, by creating the conditions that can prevent individual and collective crises, and by breaking the cycles of inequity that lead people to our safety net in the first place,” Chair Kafoury said. “This is what we are called to do and it’s not just about what the County does, but also how we do it — and the values that guide us.”
COVID-19: ‘Something we’d never seen before’
Chair Kafoury highlighted the County’s early and ongoing steps to mobilize and quickly co-create strategies to address COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on communities of color.
“Though we were faced with something that we'd never seen before, we were ready because Multnomah County Public Health had, for years, fostered trust, and built relationships with Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander and immigrant communities,” Chair Kafoury said, citing County programs such as REACH, ACHIEVE and the Future Generations Collaborative.
The Chair said those partnerships were critical to shaping a holistic response to the pandemic. It meant the County could provide meaningful wraparound support for families, ensuring details like food boxes that included culturally appropriate food. She said those partnerships also helped guide the County’s testing and vaccine clinics, reaching people in places like churches, barbershops and cultural centers.
“In dozens of meetings sponsored by the County health department or my own office, community leaders shared information and offered guidance in a way that reflected their deep connections and personal ties to their communities,” Chair Kafoury said. “Staff and volunteers at culturally specific vaccination clinics listened and eased people’s fears.”
When the County learned small-business owners of color faced higher obstacles to federal relief, she noted, the County set up a new system with culturally specific business associations, empowering them to urgently distribute grant funds.
Focusing on those most impacted by the pandemic, the Chair said, drove the County’s strategy from the beginning. And even as bright spots began to appear in the region’s COVID-19 outlook, she said, the County remained acutely aware that the risk and disease spread were different for communities of color than they were for the majority-white community.
Chair Kafoury stressed the County made sure it reopened when case counts and hospitalizations declined for everyone, not just for some.
“We received a lot of pushback from those who wanted to rush our reopening,’’ she said, “but as we saw — it was the right thing to do.”
Advancing equity: Helping the County’s workforce grow into a model for the community
Chair Kafoury said the County’s focus on partnerships and listening directly to the community also drove her commitment to advancing equity inside and among the more than 6,400 employees who make up the organization.
“I will never forget a board meeting in September 2017, when one by one, County employees shared painful stories of the racism and discrimination they’d faced in our own workplace,” Chair Kafoury said. “They demanded action, and we acted.”
Together with employees, the Chair said, the County developed a Workforce Equity Strategic Plan: a roadmap to breaking down unjust systems and building up a workplace culture of equity.
“As Chair, I’ve worked to ensure this initiative receives the resources it needs to succeed,” Chair Kafoury said. “And I am deeply committed to doing the hard work to become an organization that models safety, trust and belonging for our employees, community partners and residents.”
Learning from crisis: Heat dome brings immediate and long-term lessons
In June 2021, Multnomah County faced a sustained bout of excruciating life-threatening heat that few people have ever experienced on the planet, let alone in the Pacific Northwest.
The County raced to respond by opening cooling shelters, fanning outreach teams throughout the community and calling vulnerable neighbors. Despite those efforts, 69 people died from the heat, many of them alone at home. Chair Kafoury said she was determined to learn from the tragedy, acknowledging that self-examination is never easy, even when it’s the right thing to do.
“By truly reflecting on the ways the County responds to a crisis — including the ways we fall short — we can help our community become more responsive and resilient when the next crisis hits,” Chair Kafoury said. “And perhaps, prevent the crisis from happening at all.”
With several weeks of summer still ahead, she directed the County’s departments to expedite their usual post-emergency report and immediately identify lessons and action steps. The County even interviewed grieving families. Weeks later, when another debilitating heatwave arrived, those lessons were ready to roll out.
“What resulted was a candid and clear-eyed examination of every phase and every level of our response,” Chair Kafoury said. “That led to immediate improvements, like new partnerships with 211 and TriMet, and new outreach strategies.”
Grappling with the climate crisis
The Chair said the extreme heat of last summer was supposed to be a 1,000-year event. Instead, it arrived years earlier than anyone expected, and only because of human-driven global warming and climate change. Those conditions can, and will likely, happen again.
Chair Kafoury said the County had already been on the front lines of the climate crisis, and she stressed the importance of local, state and federal governments continuing to work together to confront the issue by quickly eliminating the use of fossil fuels.
“In 2017 I pledged that Multnomah County would transition to 100% clean energy by 2050, and meet our community’s electricity needs from renewable sources by 2035,” Chair Kafoury said. “Last year, the County became the first jurisdiction in Oregon to ban the use of fossil fuels in its own new or remodeled buildings.”
That work can be big and small, Chair Kafoury noted, and both sweeping and intensely local. For example, the County continues to invest in climate resilience by planting hundreds of trees in East County to help break up heat islands, cool our community and support wildlife for the future.
Creating ‘the hope, healing and joy that families need to thrive’
And it’s not just climate change, Chair Kafoury said. Fallout from emergencies like the pandemic and a related surge in community violence have also required the County to take immediate action while simultaneously pushing solutions upstream.
She stressed the need to reach out to young people now, especially as things get harder amid the isolation and deep trauma from the pandemic.
“That’s why, despite COVID-19, we continue to meet the health, social and emotional needs of children and families with interventions that don’t just interrupt and prevent the trauma of instability and violence, but also build up the hope, healing and joy that families need to thrive,” Chair Kafoury said.
The Chair noted important tools and support are often centered at school. Under the Chair’s leadership, Multnomah County’s Schools Uniting Neighborhoods – or SUN – program has expanded to offer more safe places where caring adults can reach and teach kids after the school day.
SUN, which serves more than 90 schools, sees the family unit as a building block of the community. The Chair said the program connects entire families to health and social services, making the whole community more resilient in the face of potential crises.
“That’s why I’ve championed SUN’s expansion into East County, and applied a racial justice lens to our funding model,” she said, work “that transformed how we support children and youth with culturally specific services.”
The Chair pointed to the early progress and accomplishments of the County’s historic Preschool for All program, which voters passed in November 2020. That new field of work for the County — to connect 3- and 4-year olds to free, high-quality preschool, reduce the cost of early education to parents and pay preschool educators a living wage — will make a meaningful difference even earlier in the lives of children and families.
Starting Wednesday morning, families could begin applying for the first 677 spots opening this fall. Chair Kafoury said the County’s Preschool for All program is on track to serve thousands more kids in the coming years.
“It can, and will, open the door for children to perform better, and achieve more, throughout their school years, setting them up for greater stability and success,” she said.
Shelter and housing: A ‘both-and’ framework for addressing homelessness
The County’s steadfast commitment to meeting urgent needs and ensuring long-term stability also shines through in the County’s response to homelessness, Chair Kafoury said – through a series of crucial steps that reflect a a “both-and” framework built around providing not just more shelter, but more opportunities for services and permanent housing.
“I truly believe that our community understands and supports the County’s goal of meeting people’s most immediate needs while also working to prevent people from ever reaching a crisis point,” Chair Kafoury said.
As Chair since 2014, following six years as the County’s District 1 commissioner, Chair Kafoury oversaw the largest and fastest expansion of shelter in Portland’s history. More than 1,000 new beds have opened, nearly tripling capacity, with hundreds more on the way that will provide an immediate, temporary place for people to find safety off the street.
“But as we've increased our shelter capacity, we’ve also focused on getting people into homes of their own,” Chair Kafoury said. “Because ensuring that there is permanent housing waiting for our neighbors experiencing homelessness is the only way that shelters can play a meaningful part of a lasting solution to the crisis.”
In addition to creating more shelter beds, and opening new types of shelter like villages and motels, the County has also focused on more case management, addiction and mental health treatment, and long-term rent assistance strategies that break the cycle and end the trauma of homelessness.
“The Supportive Housing Services Measure that tri-county voters so wisely passed in 2020 is already helping us expand and strengthen all of that work — shelter and housing,” Chair Kafoury said.
Moving forward: ‘The belief that our community can in fact build back’
The Chair closed by thanking County employees, community partners and her colleagues on the Board: Commissioner Sharon Meieran, Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson and Commissioner Lori Stegmann.
She also thanked “each of you who calls Multnomah County home.”
“We all bear scars from the tremendous grief, isolation and loss we’ve endured over the last two years together,” Chair Kafoury said. “But your resilience and your compassion, your generosity and your kindness, helped carry me — helped carry our community — through the darkest days of the pandemic.
“So as we move into a new phase, I hope that you give yourself the grace to heal, the room to hope and the belief that our community can in fact build back to be more equitable and just than it was before.”####