In a year of budget shortfalls, youth speak of change

April 27, 2017

The Board of Commissioners during the first of three public hearings on the 2018 budget.

It’s hard to navigate a new life after immigrating to the United States, 17-year-old Balkhissa Noor told the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday night. But county-supported programs helped ease her transition.

“IRCO provides a refuge that immigrants need, it gives me solace when I’m frustrated or when I just need a laugh,” Noor said. She asked the board to continue supporting an after-school program called Schools Uniting Neighborhoods, and a teen employment program called SummerWorks.

Last summer, Noor interned with a SUN program for kids ages 7 to 11. This summer, she’s hoping to land a SummerWorks gig with U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley. Noor said she never would have had those opportunities without SUN and Summerworks.

The Board of Commissioners held the first of three public hearings Wednesday as it prepares to finalize the County’s $2 billion 2018 budget. The event was hosted by Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO), in partnership with the Coalition of Communities of Color.

After the three hearings, the board will in May, submit a proposed budget to the Tax Supervising and Conservation Commission, an independent panel appointed by the governor that helps determine whether the county’s budget complies with local budget law. The board will take testimony one last time, on May 25, before voting to make the budget final during that day’s board meeting.

The county’s budget is affected in part by state and federal funds. The state is bracing for a $1.6 billion shortfall, and federal priorities have shifted from health and human services to national security and defense.

“It’s not clear today what the financial impact will be of the federal and state budgets,” Kafoury said last week when she revealed her proposed budget, “but it’s clear that we need to plan for cuts.”

SummerWorks is slated for a budget increase adding as many as 50 new positions. While most programs, including SUN, would continue unchanged, the proposed 2018 budget would cut 73 full-time health providers, eliminate the Warrant Strike Team in the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office and ramp down part of the Department of Community Justice’s Londer Learning Center.

Teens spoke in support of one program that could potentially see a cut: the Youth Gang Prevention program at IRCO.

Sara Msafiri, left and Jemima Kifuka, both 12 and from Congo, testify in support of IRCO's SUN program.

Alex Sadi, 19, emigrated from Congo as a kid. In high school he started skipping school and using drugs. He finally dropped out. He was booked into jail 10 times. By anyone’s reckoning, Sadi was on track to commit some serious crime by the time he turned 18.

But IRCO stepped in, he told commissioners. “I thought nobody really cared,” he said. He said he’s realized that even a little bit of attention can turn a kid around. “Looking back,” he said, “I owe everyone I disrespected a big apology.”

Fowzia Ibrahim, 16, spoke up about IRCO’s SUN program. She said her mother was the family’s only source of income, and that sometimes she didn’t bring home enough to pay the family’s water bill. As the oldest of 10 children, Ibrahim felt a responsibility to help.

“Thank God IRCO was there,” she said. The staff helped her apply for a Youth Ambassador position with the City of Portland, and Ibrahim brought those paychecks home.

Representatives from Self Enhancement Inc., Voz, the Iraqi Society of Oregon and the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO) also spoke, seeking new and continued support for programs serving communities of color.

And youth turned out from SUN schools across the county, including the program at Franklin High run by the nonprofit Latino Network.

Freshman Juliana Martinez said the program is more important than ever, especially for Latina and Latino students like her. “It’s been teaching us a lot about our identities, what it means to be a Latino in the United States,” she told commissioners.

In a school where she often feels invisible and unheard, SUN lets her be seen, Martinez said.

“It feels like we actually matter,” she said. “There are days when we sit down and talk about life.”

Commissioner Lori Stegmann, right, chats with residents before a public budget hearing.

Their youth engagement specialist, Aliera Morasch, also checks their grades. She’s a mash-up of mentor, teacher and older sister. Martinez said Morasch, Latino Network and SUN all remind her of a lesson no student should have to learn:

“You are not a mistake,” she said, “no matter what your damn skin color is.”

Upcoming Hearings

Wednesday, May 3, 6 to 8 p.m.: Multnomah Building boardroom, 501 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., Portland, OR 97214

Wednesday, May 10, 6 to 8 p.m.: East County Building, Sharron Kelley Room, 600 N.E. 8th St., Gresham, OR 97030

Unable to attend? Write to the board in any language at board.clerk@multco.us