Multnomah County Chair Marissa Madrigal announced on Friday a proposal with the city of Portland and several school districts to work together on expanded funding for the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods system.
In addition to announcing the collaborative proposal on SUN schools with Portland Mayor Charlie Hales during her State of the County address, Madrigal also told a City Club of Portland audience that the county and city will jointly fund services for victims of sexual exploitation and share the cost of short-term rent assistance to prevent people from becoming homeless.
“A few months ago, Mayor Hales and I committed that instead of rehashing last year’s city/county budget drama-rama, we would sit together and try to make sense of some things in the City and County budgets,” Chair Madrigal said in her Feb. 21 speech at the Governor Hotel in Portland.
The county chair said she and the mayor agreed on some principles up front -- including the idea that while it might make business sense for the city or county to be solely responsible for some things, “there were other areas where a legacy of mutual investment has maximized the benefit to the entire community -- like SUN Schools.”
SUN schools -- joint ventures of the county, cities, non-profits and school districts -- provide free, after-school classes and access to other vital services for children and their families.
The SUN partnership proposal would preserve ongoing funding for 10 current SUN schools and expand funding to 10 more schools in next year’s city and county budgets. The result? A total of 80 SUN community schools countywide serving 24,000 students and their families with improved access to food pantries, energy assistance and health and mental health resources, as well as academic support, enrichment and recreational activities.
The chair also announced the spirit of county-city collaboration would continue with proposals to have the county fully fund the Crisis Assessment and Treatment Center while the City will shoulder the full cost of the Sobering Station at Hooper. And she said the county will fully fund senior centers while the city will pay for enforcement of its specified animal code.
All the proposals fit with the chair’s opening theme of always striving to work better so all Multnomah County residents benefit.
“The reason I work for Multnomah County, the reason I am here today is because I believe we can do better,’’ she said. “I believe as a people, we possess the strength to make a difference in the lives of our friends and neighbors, no matter who they are or where they come from.”
“It’s difficult to overstate how proud I am of much of the work Multnomah County is doing. I have witnessed our passion for people, our heart and our grit more times than I can count,” Chair Madrigal said. “We touch every corner of our community whether it’s seniors and people with disabilities or kids learning to read, whether it’s finding new homes for pets or keeping your summers a little less mosquito-plagued.”
“We’ve seen what happens when we attempt to make sense of the complexity and contradictions by assigning people and problems to one category, one department or one government,” she said. “Nothing.”
The chair told stories of three people whom she told the audience they need to know “to understand the true state of Multnomah County and see the glimmers of opportunity on the horizon.” She then linked each personal tale to county efforts to work smarter.
The first story was of a young woman Chair Madrigal remembered as “dazzling” and a natural at politics. Turned out, however, that the young woman had gone into the foster care system at age 10 when authorities determined her biological mother was abusive, addicted and could no longer care for her and her children.
The young woman also had been charged with, convicted of and served jail time for a nonviolent financial crime she committed at 18 at the urging and under the influence of her biological mother.
Her mother was never charged, but she was. A court appointed attorney recommended that this young woman plead guilty to multiple felonies, which would have permanently devastated her life’s upward trajectory. After a private attorney hired by someone who believed in her potential stepped in, she pleaded guilty to one charge, with jail time and hundreds of hours of community service.
“What is most frightening to me is that the only thing unique about this story is my friend’s ability to beat the odds,” Chair Madrigal said. “Her story makes me proud of her and angry at us. How many young people are sitting in our jails and prisons right now deciding that their lives are over -- with no one left to fight for them? How can we hold people who make mistakes accountable and help them not make the same mistakes again?”
Among the county’s efforts to work smarter in the justice system, Chair Madrigal said, is the use of a “functional family” approach that works with everybody who deals with a young man or young woman on probation. The county also focuses on Black and Latino gang-affected young people and their families with efforts that account for different cultural, religious, familial and inter-generational dynamics, she said.
And on the adult side, the chair said the county is working to fund smart, effective alternatives to incarceration.
“We’ll never stop needing some jails and prisons, she said. “But we need to be smarter. Prison and jail are blunt, expensive instruments that aren’t effective at changing people’s behavior.”
Her second story was about a close friend who killed himself. She remembered Paul as a “short, sweet, curly-haired and sometimes maddening presence who encouraged and inspired people who didn’t have anyone else on their side.”
She also sadly recounted how Paul suffered from the lasting effects of childhood trauma, poverty, and crippling self-medicated mental illness.
“Paul was special to me, but again, his experience and his circumstances were not unique, particularly visible - or, frankly, the worst,” she said. “There are tragically worse. But as I have personally struggled to come to terms with our collective failure to help him save himself, it has sharpened my sense of what the public’s priorities should be. There were thousands of critical junctures in Paul’s life where prevention or intervention might have made a difference.”
“At Multnomah County, our challenge as the safety net, particularly when it comes to mental illness,” she said, “is to be responsive to crisis in ways that work, while at the same time expanding investment in the supports that help people thrive before and after a crisis.”
The chair highlighted county efforts to work smarter in mental health through Mental Health First Aid training of front-line county staff and law enforcement to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness before a crisis.
“We’re screening for mental illness and addiction in routine doctor’s visits,” she said. “We’re aggressively treating youth who have just had their first experience with psychosis to keep them on track socially and developmentally. We also continue to reach out to kids at school through our long-standing school-based mental health program.“
“We, the people of Multnomah County, need to increase our mental health literacy,” she said. “We need to understand the difference between mental illness and addiction and what happens when folks are struggling with both. We all need to know the number to the mental health crisis line: 503-988-4888.”
“We need to understand that people suffering from mental illness have the right to experience symptoms, in public, just the way you and I have a right to go to Safeway when we’re under the weather,” she said. “And, we need to know that like any other chronic illness -- heart disease, diabetes, arthritis -- it never goes completely away. It needs a lifetime of management.”
The chair’s third story was of Natividad Zavala, a policy assistant in her office whose history illustrates the help any one person needs to.succeed -- even someone as smart and hard-charging as Zavala.
“In Nati’s case, he didn’t start with a college legacy in his family,” she said. “Although Nati’s family provided a loving, stable environment, when it came to college stuff, he was on his own. But in Salem, Willamette University has partnered with private donors to provide a college readiness program called Willamette Academy.
“From middle school through high school, Willamette Academy provides homework help, takes kids to visit college campuses, and has them work with Willamette professors,” she said, quoting Zavala crediting Willamette Academy with giving him an opportunity he might have never had.for a college education.
“It’s a great example of a local team effort having wide-reaching, life-long effects that Multnomah County will benefit from,” she said.
The chair closed her speech by tying together the commonalities from each of the three personal stories and the personal story everybody in the county has.
“We all inherit a mix of advantages and disadvantages -- for some, and I include myself in this group -- even the mild adversity I’ve experienced has made me stronger and more compassionate,” she said. “For others, the disadvantages are so material and heavy that they may feel impossible to overcome."
“I believe that government’s job - which is really the people’s job and a fundamental value of our country -- is to give everyone a fair shot at life, at freedom,” Chair Madrigal said. “But that doesn’t mean giving everyone the same thing. It means we need to meet people where they are and give them what they need to be successful. Not give them what I need, or you need, but what they need in a way that respects their humanity.”