As Multnomah County enters its fifth month of responding to COVID-19, the Board of County Commissioners held a briefing Thursday, June 18, to discuss the County’s strategy for addressing the pandemic in the year ahead and its lasting impact on the economy, food access, social services and housing.
The proposed $89 million budget includes major investments in public health, congregate care support, wraparound services, and engagement with communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The investments will be guided by an equitable decision-making process that leads with race and centers the voices of those most affected.
The proposed budget anticipates support from a number of federal, state and local resources, including:
$21 million from the federal CARES Act
$31.5 million from City of Portland CARES aid
$17 million in federal shelter grants
$10 million in state rent assistance
$10 million in state testing support
“It’s quite a bit of money and has to reflect where our community has been pointing us to in terms of their critical needs,” said Kim Melton, Chair Deborah Kafoury’s Chief of Staff, “not only for the COVID response but the kind of investments that help people from contracting this virus and also supporting our communities who we know are facing increased barriers, whether it be through employment or housing at this time as a result of COVID and the economic downturn we are in.”
Departments outline efforts to address COVID-19
To meet the state and the County’s own requirements for phased reopening, the budget proposes $29 million for public and behavioral health, with investments in contact tracing, community testing, isolation and quarantine monitoring, and culturally specific outreach.
On Tuesday, June 16, department leaders briefed the Board of County Commissioners on the health, human services and public safety investments that must be made to effectively respond to the pandemic.
“We do contact-tracing work every day, but COVID-19 is different, and it’s moving fast and impacting a lot of people. Ultimately it will continue to do so until there’s a vaccine, likely beyond this fiscal year,” said Public Health Director Rachael Banks.
Banks said contact tracing and other health services must be equitably distributed across the County and also be culturally responsive, with a focus on low-barrier, low-cost access. The County will work with community-based organizations and federally qualified health centers.
The budget also includes enhanced investments in community-based behavioral health providers, including culturally specific services, to help those who may be experiencing anxiety or isolation as a result of the pandemic. “This is going to have such a dramatic impact. We haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg,” said Commissioner Sharon Meieran.
Investments in human services
Given the pandemic’s impact on people already stressed by low wages, high housing costs and behavioral healthcare gaps, , the budget proposes $40 million to help people experiencing homelessness maintain access to physically distanced shelter. Medical motels offer additional protections for people in shelter who are at the highest risk of dying or becoming seriously ill from COVID-19.
Currently, the County and City of Portland have spread shelter beds into unused public buildings such as community centers and the Oregon Convention Center.
“We know we have about 40 percent of individuals identifying as Black, indigenous or people of color,” said Joint Office of Homeless Services Director Marc Jolin. “We have very high rates of disabilities. And we have an aging population in our shelters as well. So we want to provide up to 375 rooms for people who meet this highest-risk criteria.”
Also included in the budget are nearly $15 million in spending on rent assistance, housing for families, food access and protective services for older adults and people with disabilities.
By one estimate, more than 30,000 households could be missing monthly rent payments in Multnomah County as a result of the pandemic, said Peggy Samolinski, director of the Department of County Human Services’ Youth and Family Services Division.
The County aims to provide some relief to those individuals and families so they can keep a roof over their heads and take care of basic needs. With $10 million invested in rent assistance, Samolinski said, the County estimates it could serve 1,100 families a month.
Other investments include $3 million in food access for culturally specific communities; $1.2 million in additional supports for SUN schools and domestic violence services; and resources for abuse prevention, food access for older adults, virtual senior center access, and Bienestar de la Familia, which serves immigrant and refugee families in Northeast Portland’s Cully neighborhood.
Increasing connectivity for Department of Community Justice
Reduced connectivity for those involved with the criminal justice system has also been among the fallout from the pandemic. The latest budget proposes more than $700,000 in investments in information technology resources for justice-involved individuals and staff as well as housing and domestic violence services.
“What we are experiencing is a disruption in our ability to do groups, a disruption in our volunteers’ ability to do outreach, a disruption in our cognitive behavioral therapy groups,” said Department of Community Justice Director Erika Preuitt. As physical distancing continues, the County aims to give jail justice-involved individuals access to iPads and other technology that allows them to access services.
Elder abuse is likely going under-reported in the community as well, Preuitt warned. And, she said, there’s been an increase in domestic violence. Community Justice wants to expand resources that help get victims to safety and give survivors what they need to stay safe. That includes emergency housing for those needing to escape domestic violence, as well as continued services.
“Those are our values and those are the needs we’re attempting to meet,” Preuitt said.
Strengthening infrastructure to protect tenants
The Community Alliance of Tenants, an advocacy group for renters, received an additional 100 calls per week beginning in March as renters navigated the County and other jurisdictions’ eviction moratorium, in addition to the County’s six-month rent grace period. That surge in interest revealed a need to build County infrastructure to advocate for and communicate with tenants, said Neisha Saxena, the County’s Civil Rights Administrator.
The budget proposes $100,000 in one-time funds to help renters continue to receive advice during the six-month rent repayment period. That investment would help 1,500 vulnerable renters through remote services.
“It’s incredibly important. The moratorium was essential, and this will go a long way toward making it more effective and more impactful,” said Commissioner Susheela Jayapal.