Hearing puts painful trade-offs, millions of dollars in new homelessness investments in spotlight

May 5, 2017

Suzy, a participant in Central City Concern's Recovery Mentor Program, speaks to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday, May 3, 2017. Other participants, from left, include DeForrest Jackson, Maurice Longoria and Chelsea Fowler.
Chelsea Fowler struggled for years to get sober and find a path off the streets and into a better life. But nothing worked, she said. Not until she met other people in recovery -- not until she found “a community.”

Fowler found that community in Central City Concern’s Recovery Mentor Program. The Multnomah County-funded service provides people battling addiction with supportive housing, a social network and daily check-ins from dedicated mentors.

Two years later, Fowler says, she’s clean and working at a local radio station, managing interns.

“The program gave me a place where I could set a strong foundation for the rest of my life and my recovery,” she told the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday. “It’s beautiful to wake up in this moment of time and be an active part of this community. I’m glad I’m not asleep anymore.”

Fowler was among dozens of people who shared stories about county-funded services during the second of three public hearings on Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury’s proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year.

The proposed budget calls for new investments in priorities such as homelessness services, affordable housing, criminal justice diversions, and mental health support in schools and jails. But it also calls for painful trade-offs to help fund those priorities while also preparing the county for potentially serious state and federal cuts.

More than 100 positions could be eliminated, many of those in the Health Department, along with cuts to programs such as the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office’s Warrant Strike Team.

Major new investments in addressing homelessness

Advocates and clients who spoke Wednesday recognized those tough calls as they thanked commissioners for past funding -- and even as they asked the board for continued funding or to spare programs at risk of being cut.

“Your investment matters,” said Stacy Borke, co-director of the coordinating board for A Home for Everyone, the region’s community-wide initiative to address homelessness.

Kafoury’s proposed budget would direct a record amount of county funding, $25 million, to the Joint Office of Homeless Services. That office was created last year with the City of Portland to streamline the delivery of homelessness services.

The increased funding, some $7.5 million, is meant to preserve programs opened with temporary funding last year, invest in new programs such as housing vouchers, and invest a one-time pot of state-limited “tax title” money in the community’s family homelessness system. Nearly $20 million of that funding would be budgeted as ongoing, providing certainty for the office and its services.

Borke, who’s also the director of housing programs at Transition Projects, told the story of a client named Trish who’d become homeless after her partner passed away.

Without her partner’s income, Trish couldn’t afford her apartment. Her friends and family were also struggling and didn’t have the means to help. Trish was living in her van when the Joint Office opened the Hansen shelter in the county’s old sheriff’s headquarters last summer.

Hansen provided 200 beds, an integral part of the more than 600 publicly funded beds the community has added since January 2016. Without that space, Borke said, Trish might have waited months for a safer place to sleep.

Trish didn’t stay in shelter long. She used her stay to find an apartment and rent assistance, and landed in a neighborhood where she had connections. In 2015-16, some 4,600 people were placed in housing, hundreds more than the year before and well over A Home for Everyone’s goals.

“We rely on your constant and intentional support to ensure that we can avoid homelessness altogether and that shelters are places for people to flow through,” Borke said.

Grappling with painful budget trade-offs

But speakers also made repeated pleas to restore cuts or preserve programs.

Many came in support of the Londer Learning Center, which works with individuals on parole and probation to provide adult basic education classes and job training. Among those who spoke was Virginia Ryan, widow of Londer Learning Center co-founder John Ryan.

“Yes I’m interested in preserving my husband’s legacy," she said. “Even more, I’m interested in preserving the hope and opportunity the center provides for so many people.”

The proposed budget retains funding for the center through the end of 2017. That transition period will provide time for the Department of Community Justice, which oversees Londer, to work with community colleges and other nonprofit organizations to ensure clients have the same access and opportunities.

Carole Gaglione, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Multnomah County’s Mid County Health Center, urged the board to reconsider proposed cuts to health services and providers. Because of revenue reductions in the Medicaid system and reduced enrollment, the Health Department could cut seven provider teams and support staff, as many as 73 full-time positions.

Gaglione said Mid County is one of the busiest clinics, serving the most diverse clientele in the state.

“I’m here alone, but I’m not here alone in my concern,” she said. “These cuts are going to leave our patients without primary care providers.”

A supporter of Lifeworks NW's Strengthening Families program speaks to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday, May 3, 2017. Patricia Rojas of El Programa Hispano Catolico, right, looks on.
A supporter of Lifeworks NW's Strengthening Families program speaks to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday, May 3, 2017. Patricia Rojas of El Programa Hispano Catolico, right, looks on.
Other speakers sought expanded funding for current programs, such Dress for Success. Some asked for the restoration of programs cut in past budgets, including Lifeworks NW’s Strengthening Families Program.

And some urged continued funding for programs not facing county cuts, such as Volunteers of America’s Community Partners Reinvestment Program and El Programa Hispano Catolico’s culturally specific domestic violence line.

Patricia Rojas, El Programa Hispano Catolico’s executive director, praised commissioners for funding domestic violence and sexual assault services, noting that the most recent “Count Her In” report on the experiences of women in Oregon found domestic and sexual violence at “epidemic public health levels.”

Rojas, who serves on A Home for Everyone’s coordinating board, also thanked the board for having made homelessness and housing, particularly for people of color, a top priority. In the community’s 2015 count of people sleeping in shelter, transitional housing or outside, homelessness was up sharply for people of color.

“Your investment in the Joint Office and housing services, converting one-time sources to ongoing and increasing funding, says that very clearly,” she said of the county’s commitment to homelessness services. “You understand that building a community requires having resources to house people… Now more than ever, it’s critical.”

Upcoming hearings

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

Thursday, May 25: The board will take testimony before its final adoption of the budget, Multnomah Building, Board Room 100, 501 SE Hawthorne Blvd., Portland