Chair Kafoury reflects on monumental COVID-19 response and post-pandemic future in 2021 State of the County speech

March 5, 2021

Chair Deborah Kafoury delivered the 2021 State of the County address Friday, March 5, almost one year since the first Multnomah County resident tested positive for COVID-19. In a multimedia presentation hosted by the City Club of Portland, the Chair outlined how the pandemic forced the County to tackle a once-in-a-century combination of public health, social and economic crises. 

On March 11, 2020, Chair Kafoury declared a state of emergency in Multnomah County. The Board of Commissioners has now extended it four times to help the County rise again and again in its response to the pandemic. Along the way, the County witnessed widespread protests against racism and systemic injustice, and devastating wildfires that threatened the health of residents and displaced communities. 

Looking back at the extraordinary challenges of 2020, Chair Kafoury said, it’s clear that Multnomah County’s recovery from the pandemic must take into account the historic inequities and injustices that the previous year exposed. 

“As we stand at the edge of a post-pandemic world, we have the opportunity to reflect and ask ourselves, ‘Who can, and should, we become as a community after navigating a year like this?’” Chair Kafoury said. “Our recovery from the pandemic, and the years that follow, must move Multnomah County toward a new place of strength, health and hope.”

Support through housing

The COVID-19 crisis has emphasized the need for stable, safe housing. Multnomah County’s homelessness response system on any given night helps 12,000 residents stay in homes of their own through a combination of rent assistance and supportive services. Thousands more people stay in shelters over the course of a year. Yet too many people continue to sleep outside, Chair Kafoury said. 

In May, voters approved a measure that will dramatically expand the County’s response system. The investment will significantly increase access to rent assistance and wraparound services, including behavioral health supports, that help someone stay in their housing after they’ve regained it. Meanwhile, the County’s Behavioral Health Resource Center will bring 24-hour shelter, peer-led behavioral health services, and transitional housing to the downtown core. 

“We are on our way toward becoming a community that is fully prepared and able to support every neighbor experiencing chronic homelessness,” Kafoury said.

A continued public health response

The pandemic has shined a spotlight on the County’s public health responsibilities. That work must continue once Multnomah County emerges from the throes of the pandemic. It involves health education, outreach, harm reduction, and more. 

Looking ahead, Chair Kafoury said, Multnomah County Public Health will play a central role in the County’s response to housing instability, climate change, gun violence and racism. All of those challenges are legacies of systems that weren’t designed to serve or benefit people of color. 

“Because health isn’t just about keeping the community safe from viruses and treating wounds,” Chair Kafoury said. “As we’ve seen over and over again this past year, our community’s health depends on addressing all the inequities that put people’s health and lives at risk.”

Rebuilding with equity 

The County has already begun building the framework for that future, Chair Kafoury said — working closely with communities of color to co-create the plan for spending the County’s supportive housing services funding, the service model for the Behavioral Health Resource Center, and the County’s COVID-19 response for Black, Indigenous and other people of color.

Multnomah County’s recovery from the pandemic must prioritize equity, inclusion and justice, Chair Kafoury said. 

Racial justice is the bedrock of the County’s Preschool for All initiative, which prioritizes communities who historically have had the least access to high-quality early education. The County’s Transforming Justice initiative is envisioning a public safety system decoupled from institutionalized racism. Equity also guides budget decisions across every department across Multnomah County. 

In fall 2017, Multnomah County adopted the Workforce Equity Resolution after employees voiced concerns over barriers related to race, ethnicity, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other protected classes. That plan must continue to be fully supported, Chair Kafoury said, as the County seeks a just and equitable post-pandemic future.

“I know that we are eager to leave behind the events of the last year,” Chair Kafoury said. “But at Multnomah County, we’re using the lessons of this unique moment in our community’s story to build the just and equitable community that I know we can be. And I hope you’ll join us as we build it together.” 

Board members share their priorities

For the first time in the history of the State of the County speech, the Chair invited her Board colleagues — Commissioners Sharon Meieran, Susheela Jayapal, Jessica Vega Pederson, and Lori Stegmann — to reflect on their own priorities. 
  • Commissioner Sharon Meieran: Despite managing crisis after crisis in the last year, it’s time to focus on recovery, resiliency and reimagined systems, Commissioner Meieran said.

That involves investing further in safety and stability for people experiencing homelessness; filling in gaps in the behavioral health system; re-envisioning law enforcement; and solving the root problems that cause people to enter hospitals, shelters and jails.

“Our work is not just about getting through COVID,” she said. “It’s about moving forward with renewed determination, and ensuring that our entire community will thrive.” 

  • Commissioner Susheela Jayapal: Racial justice and interconnectedness — the sense that success for all of us depends on the success of any one of us — both rose as stark themes this past year, Commissioner Jayapal said. And both underscore the need to confront systemic inequities.

That requires focusing on an equitable response to the pandemic; implementing the Supportive Housing Services Measure; and preventing and responding to community violence. 

“I’m honored to serve with this dedicated Board of Commissioners, to lead us through these challenging times,” Commissioner Jayapal said.

  • Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson: In November, voters approved Preschool For All, expanding access to high-quality, developmentally appropriate, culturally responsive preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds across Multnomah County.

Commissioner Vega Pederson said she will ensure the program is successful and enrolling children by fall 2022. 

“The values and community-centered process of Preschool for All is reflected in the work I do on the other critical issues facing our community — public safety reform, housing instability and environmental justice,” Commissioner Vega Pederson said. 

  • Commissioner Lori Stegmann: The events of 2020 made clear once again that poverty lies at the root of so many social and economic challenges, Commissioner Stegmann said. She called for more policies that increase economic mobility.

“As we begin to recover from this pandemic, I am optimistic,” Commissioner Stegmann said, “because I know that by working together, our values, not our circumstances, will define us and set us on the path forward.”

Key questions and answers

Following her remarks, Chair Kafoury fielded questions moderated by Dr. Rachel Solotaroff, president and CEO of Central City Concern. The questions came from City Club and members of the public. Here are some of the highlights. 

Are there plans to treat the mental crisis in Multnomah County, and if so, what are they?

Chair Kafoury: “One of the ways that we are going to address and are addressing the crisis of mental health in our community is the supportive services ballot measure we’ve talked a lot about. But I'll give another example and that is . . . the Behavioral Health Resource Center. And this is what our community has asked for for years: a place where people can go to come off the street and be safe, and be surrounded by people who have been through or who are going through what they are going through.” 

What specifically is the County’s role in setting vaccine strategy? And what have you done with that role that you have?

Chair Kafoury: “Multnomah County’s role is to fill in the gaps in a larger vaccine strategy. We don’t make the decisions regarding the vaccine allocation. That’s a decision that’s handled at state level. Through our local public health authority, we are aggressively using the small share of vaccine we receive to reach people at the highest risk of getting sick and dying. So we’re focusing on communities of color; on people who have been disproportionately hit by the virus. . . . We use the data and overlay zip codes where people have been hardest hit and we’re setting up clinics in those communities with community-based organizations so that we have those trusted relationships and those community partners. 

We also run clinics. We have the largest federally-qualified health clinic system in the state of Oregon. Sixty thousand people in Multnomah County use the county health clinics for their healthcare. As of March 3, 67 percent of the vaccines we had went to BIPOC individuals, and 51 percent of them were non-English speakers. The clinics are trusted community partners as well and they're able to get vaccine out to their folks.”

There’s an economic cliff coming that huge numbers of people may face when the statewide eviction moratorium expires in June. How do you see the county supporting or partnering to help with folks who are going to be experiencing that really terrifying moment?

Chair Kafoury: “From the beginning of the crisis, Multnomah County moved very quickly to ensure we had an eviction moratorium here and to push the state to do one at the state level. Because the last thing you need during a pandemic is for people losing their homes. And we’ve been saying this for years that housing is health. . . . We know that the federal government is going to allocate additional resources for rent assistance, which is crucially needed. But we’re going to need time to get the money and to get it out to the people who need it. And that’s going to take longer than June 30.”

You can watch the entire State of the County program, including the full Q and A, here.