The room was filled with the chatter of babies, children and their parents, and students and seniors. They filled the seats in the community room of El Programa Hispano Católico’s (El Programa Hispano) Gresham office and along a square table with Chair Deborah Kafoury and Commissioner Lori Stegmann.
“The County and Programa Hispano have been partners for many years,” Programa Hispano Executive Director Patricia Rojas, while making introductions. “So today, we’re here to have a conversation about what our community experiences are. What do you want your elected officials to know?”
One-by-one, through a Spanish translator, they shared their stories at a county listening session on Monday, Nov. 27. Many expressed gratitude for the critical services received through El Programa Hispano, a social service organization that receives county funding and serves roughly 13,000 people, primarily in east Multnomah County.
But they also aired pressing concerns on subjects like skyrocketing rents, stagnant wages and reeling accounts of surviving domestic violence.
“I came here to get assistance for rent when my husband went to jail for domestic violence,” one woman said, trembling as she spoke to the commissioners. “He was the sole provider. They turned my water off, and I was evicted. Programa Hispano was the only agency that ever helped me. They paid for my car and my attorney. The housing is so expensive, you need three times the rent. Without programs like this backing us up, I don’t know where I’d be.”
The event was the second of Chair Kafoury’s listening sessions meant to identify prevailing issues affecting the community and how the county’s budget should be shaped to address them. More than 60 people responded to invitations to attend the event and share their successes and struggles.
Housing, support services, employment and economic development opportunities are common themes because people are having a hard time keeping up with the cost of living, Rojas said. Mental health and medical resources, racism and safe spaces related to culture and language at school are also themes.
“And though many didn’t speak to the issue directly, immigration was threaded throughout. Documentation status impacts (a family’s) ability to access critical services and safe spaces,” Rojas said. “Domestic and sexual violence not only results in trauma in the life of a survivor, it is a public health crisis that creates housing and economic instability. But we saw a courageous, resilient and hopeful community. A community that is united in support of one another.”
A 14-year-old girl, was surrounded by friends and mentors, as she tearfully recounted her experience as a witness to a domestic violence homicide next door, heard through the thin walls of her apartment. Another woman described losing teeth at the hand of a former partner and not having the money to fix them.
“I filed a domestic violence report but I continued to go back to my partner,” Socorro Cruz, a 30-year-old mother of three, told the commissioners. “I think mostly because it was emotional. I wasn’t brave enough to do it. It took three or four years more of violence for me to really leave. “
Today, Cruz is pursuing her second certificate through a Nursing Assistance Program and working full-time. But the new mother ran out of savings while on maternity leave. She came to Programa Hispano for rent assistance.
“I can barely afford to pay my rent,” she said. “Here in the city, there are a lot of single mothers. And for us it’s really hard to get ahead. I can’t pay for my school. If I pay for myself, I’ll have to go back in a year.”
The commissioners thanked the participants for sharing their personal stories and bringing to light how policy decisions play out in residents’ lives.
Commissioner Stegmann emphasized Multnomah County’s dedication to helping -- and welcoming -- everyone in the community.
“When we go into our budgeting process, it’s one thing to look at numbers for programs, it’s another to come here and listen to how those numbers affect each one of you -- and help,” Commissioner Stegmann said. “So you have a very committed board with great leadership and collaboration and camaraderie. We will do our best to serve you.”
“I understand the need for housing, domestic violence services and other services,” Chair Kafoury said, “ and I’m happy to partner with El Programa Hispano.”
“But It’s never enough,” she continued. “Our nation is being run by people who don’t care and don’t have your best interest at heart. But at Multnomah County we care, and I care. As we go into this budget season, it’s very important to center those decisions around community.
“It’s important to hear from everybody in that process.”