Final budget hearing continues with investment themes in housing, homeless, Willamette River health, and immigrant and asylum seeker support

June 3, 2024

Wednesday’s meeting continued the themes heard from previous public hearings, including testimony in favor of flushing cyanobacterial blooms in the Willamette River, increasing funding for housing, homeless services and eviction prevention and more

Wednesday’s meeting continued the themes heard from previous public hearings, including testimony in favor of flushing cyanobacterial blooms in the Willamette River, increasing funding for housing, homeless services and eviction prevention; support for immigrant and asylum seekers, and funding for the Oregon State University Extension Service. 

Speakers from County-contracted service providers also advocated for cost-of-living adjustments for their organizations. And several speakers opposed investments in Amazon and the elimination of Multnomah Idea Lab.

The budget hearing was co-hosted by the Coalition of Communities of Color, a nonprofit representing 18 culturally specific organizations. Marcus Mundy, the coalition’s executive director, introduced the hearing, encouraging community members to share their feedback with the board.

“I’m here to remind folks listening about all that Multnomah County does and how much more it could do, which is what my fellow community members are here to share and testify,” Mundy said. 

“I hope you are direct, candid and forthright as you tell these five commissioners what they need to know to make good, visionary decisions for the County.I guarantee they are listening.”

Willamette River Algae Bloom 

Many people, both in-person and through written testimony, spoke in support of a Human Access Project-led initiative to address the cyanobacteria blooms that plague the Willamette River every summer. 

Speakers expressed support for a $150,000 executive budget amendment that would allow Oregon State University to address the blooms by designing a channel for the Ross Island Lagoon.

Those blooms cause risk to people and pets during the warm summer months — the same time of year when the river is most inviting for those who wish to use it, said community member Ray Thomas. “It’s a great health hazard and has been something that has created a bloom originating in the Ross Island Lagoon and spreads in a plume of cyanobacteria down into the core areas on both sides of the river. And it stays there until fall,” Thomas said.

The project, Thomas said, would create a waterflow that sweeps water in Ross Island, “a water deadzone,” restoring the health of downtown waters in the summer.

Anna Allen, Regional Government Affairs Director for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents the Umatilla Tribes, Nez Perce Tribes, Yakama Nation and Warm Springs Tribes, also spoke in support of the project.

Anna Allen, Regional Government Affairs Director for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents the Umatilla Tribes, Nez Perce Tribes, Yakama Nation and Warm Springs Tribes, also spoke in support of the project.

“We have a strong interest in the health and well-being of the Willamette River, and of the tribal fishers who are in prolonged direct contact with the river,” Allen said.

“As the local public health authority, Multnomah County should invest in mitigation efforts to address this public health issue that will continue to negatively impact all people and animals who call Multnomah County home,” Allen said. 

Housing, Homelessness, Recovery and COLA

Speakers from JOIN, Northwest Pilot Project, Home Forward and other community-based organizations advocated for increasing the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for contracted provider organizations from 3% to 6%.

Speakers also requested additional funding for supportive housing units, which combine wraparound services with long-term rent assistance. And, speakers asked the County to re-base contracts for homeless service providers.

The Chair’s budget proposes a 24% increase in homeless services, across all funding sources, directing a total of $285 million to housing placements, rent assistance and support services for people experiencing homelessness. 

“We’d also love for the board to triple the amount of Joint Office capacity-building grants from $10 to $30 million in fiscal year 2025," said Laura Golino De Lovato, executive director of Northwest Pilot Project, a nonprofit organization providing housing, assistance, transportation and advocacy to very low-income seniors. The proposed FY 2025 budget includes $10 million to continue the workforce stabilization grants distributed to 61 homeless service providers in 2024. 

Some speakers also spoke in support of investments in recovery housing. Due to the lack of availability of sober living, some people who are recovering from substance use disorders are forced to go back to the streets or other places that aren’t supportive of recovery, said Sarah Schindlebeck, regional director of peer services at 4D Recovery. 

Robert Sanders, director of Adolescent Services at 4D Recovery, shared his personal experience of returning home from his second military deployment and struggling to find a pathway out of chaos. 

“I was that person that walked up and down 82nd Avenue and lived in cockroach-infested hotels, when I was lucky,” he said.

Sanders said he was one of 1,400 veterans in Oregon who spend the night outside on any given night. 

“Rewind to my last days out there, I was breaking down in a hotel room,” said Sanders. “The drugs weren’t working and things were getting worse. But my sister gave me a place to stay for a night and organized my entrance into treatment.” 

Since then, Sanders has graduated from college, becoming a present husband, father and son. 

“But not everyone has those same assets. As Oregonians and as adults, we have the responsibility to ensure that housing exists, so our kids can transition into those supports and sustain the life they’ve built in their recovery,” he said.

Eviction Defense 

Members of the Commons Law Center, a nonprofit that provides sliding scale and pro bono legal services, spoke in support of continued funding for their eviction defense services.

Riley Gombart, director of estate planning and probate for the Commons Law Center, said the organization's Tenant Eviction Defense Clinic has served over 1,000 people facing eviction providing them with critical legal assistance.

“Eighty percent of those assisted are able to avoid eviction and remain in their homes and maintain stability because of our intervention,” said Gombart. 

Speakers said the need for services has only continued to grow.

“Without the services our clinic provides, we would see a significant increase in evictions. The vast majority of those served are BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, women or elderly. Many struggle with mental health or addiction issues,” Gombart said. 

“These are vulnerable populations and they deserve our unwavering support and protection.” 

Support for Immigrants and Asylum Seekers

Alyssa Walker Keller, a member of the Asylum Seeker Solidarity Collective and the Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice, advocated for investment in the Department of County Human Services Newcomer Support Services pilot program, calling it “critically needed.”

The pilot project would allow for emergency housing support for individuals and families who have newly arrived in this country while awaiting connection to other resources.

“It is a rare issue in our polarized world that unites schools, mental health professionals, philanthropic organizations, immigrant rights, refugee resettlement and grassroots organizers, housing service providers, faith communities, government and newcomer constituents to come together across conflicting priorities and commitments,” said Walker Keller.

Chair Jessica Vega Pederson’s executive budget allocates $1.3 million for the Newcomer Support Services Pilot to augment short-term humanitarian transition services for asylum-seekers — complementing state funding that was allocated during the 2024 legislative short session. The pilot focuses on developing systems to house and coordinate basic needs and legal services for immigrants and asylum seekers who have recently arrived in the U.S.

Proponents also shared their support for proposed investments by the Joint Office of Homeless Services to create 90 additional units of shelter in the family shelter system and a 25-bed culturally specific shelter for immigrant youth.

“It does not fall solely on this board and County to meet the needs, but the full investment is essential to make sure unsheltered families who do not have connections, language or cultural knowledge are not sleeping outside their first night in Oregon this coming year,” Walker Keller said.

Arguments against investment in Amazon and elimination of Multnomah Idea Lab    

Community members continued to push for divestment from the technology company Amazon, with both in-person testimony and more than 140 written statements arguing for divestment.

Speakers argued the company contributes to the climate change crisis and provides services to the Israeli army, which is engaged in a war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Sabrina Sullivan testified against the elimination of the Multnomah Idea Lab and investments in Amazon. The County needs infrastructure dedicated to the intersection of poverty and race, she said. 

“I urge the board to divest from Amazon and make only socially responsible investments and to continue to invest in initiatives that promote equity and justice and ensure the 2025 budget represents a genuine commitment to the welfare of all community members.” 

OSU Extension

Lorna Schilling, the past president of Multnomah County Master Gardeners, an organization of trained volunteers educated through the OSU Extension Servicealso spoke before the board. Multnomah County once provided funding for OSU Extension Service, but hasn’t funded the program in more than two decades. 

Schilling said Multnomah County Master Gardeners aims to provide “reliable, relevant, and reachable gardening information and education opportunities.”

“Twenty-one years ago, Multnomah County discontinued its partnership and since then, we patched our resources together,” said Cynthia Chase, current president of Multnomah County Master Gardeners. “In order to continue and expand our outreach and education programs, we need the OSU extension added back into the budget.”

Schilling said the organization has received an influx of requests from school teachers to introduce gardens to their students. “We’ve had 180 students so far this year,” said Schilling. 

“You see us at farmers markets,” said Chase. “You may have had your child’s class visit us at our demonstration garden to learn how plants grow. We never charge for our services, and we seek more ways to educate the public and those with fewer resources and partner with nonprofits with similar goals.” 

Watch the full budget hearing here.