The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners held the first of three public meetings on the fiscal year 2019 budget, hearing from nearly 50 residents on the importance of youth leadership programs, community health workers, early childhood education, and gang prevention among other social services.
“Thank you for coming tonight,” Chair Deborah Kafoury told those gathered in the gymnasium at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.
“I want to say how proud we are to partner with the [Coalition of] Communities of Color and each organization,” she said. “We’re committed to making the county more equitable, and getting our culturally-specific partners strong and vibrant so all communities can thrive.”
This year’s budget is relatively stable, at about $2 billion. But with $35.5 million less to spend, the budget doesn’t allow the county to launch in new programs, Kafoury said. And the forecast grows ominous — with rising expenses and stagnant revenue — as the Board looks to fiscal year 2020. Still, Kafoury encouraged people to tell her and the Board what matters most to them and, for those who didn’t have a chance to speak, to attend upcoming public hearings, scheduled for 6 p.m.:
- Wednesday, May 9, in the Multnomah Boardroom, 501 SE Hawthorne Blvd., in Portland.
- Wednesday, May 16, at the East County Building, 600 NE 8th St., in Gresham.
IRCO Executive Director Lee Po Cha thanked the board for bringing the budget process into the community, and encouraged the audience to speak up. “I hope you take advantage to speak your mind about critical services the county offers to our community,” he said.
And residents did speak, praising the county’s investment in housing assistance and seeking a larger investment in immigration legal services for residents who risk deportation.
Stacey Triplett, Community Programs Manager with Worksystems, thanked the county for supporting a job-placement and transitional housing collaboration that includes Worksystems, Human Solutions, the Urban League, SE Works, POIC and a Home for Everyone. Program participants work with a career coach and receive short-term rent assistance while they secure stable employment.
Tiana Hammon, a career coach for POIC, said she could go on for hours with stories of how housing and employment support can change a person’s life, with even a small investment in things such as bus passes, gas cards, job interview clothes and apartment application fees. “I would like to say thank you for helping our displaced families,” she said. “This program is well needed.”
Beside her sat 25-year-old Shaudae Yoakum.
Yoakum had been struggling with unstable housing for some time when, last year, the younger of her two boys died of SIDS. She met Hammon through Rosemary Anderson, the high school she had attended some years before. Together they worked to secure transitional housing for Yoakum and her older son. Today Yoakum is a full-time student at Portland Community College, earning straight As and aspiring to go into law. With Hammon’s help, she secured a full-time job as well. And last week, Yoakum and her son finally moved into an apartment of their own, just 10 minutes from her job in North Portland.
“I have never known this sense of peace,” she said. “The smell of the new apartment, planning meals for my son, thinking of Christmas. It took a long time to get here.”
Isabell Sinclair told the board she came to receive housing and employment help through a different route. She was released from state prison, with 90 days to find a job and a place to live. “Being younger and with poor credit, it was difficult to find a place that would accept me and wasn’t too expensive,” she said.
Human Solutions paired her with a mentor and helped with logistics such as first and last month’s rent and a security deposit. But even more than the financial assistance, it was the emotional support that made the difference.
“There were so many other things that were overwhelming because I didn’t have the skill set to do that,” Sinclair said. “I can’t even explain how much that connection made a difference. All I can say is you made a very big difference in my life."
For Michaele Jolie-Roberts, a mother of 17-year-old twins, the rent and employment support helped her secure stable housing after her husband passed away. She and her boys were living on the streets until she found help through the Urban League, where staff helped her apply for a technical support job at Metro. Today she and her boys live in a subsidized apartment downtown.
“You never really know when something can happen to you,” she said. “I’m grateful to get out of the streets and get into a home. I thank you for that. Thank you."
Christina Ramadhan spoke about the dignity she recovered through housing assistance. A single mother of five, Ramadhan was bound to a wheelchair following a brutal beating in her home country of the Congo. Yet when she was resettled in the United States two years ago, the family was placed in an apartment with stairs and doorways too narrow for her to pass through.
“I was sleeping in the living room. I was really struggling,” she said. “I wasn’t showering. For one year and 2 months I couldn’t take a shower like a normal person. I was living like a baby, with people wiping me.”
Staff from IRCO’s Africa House helped her secure a rental subsidy and find a new apartment, on a single floor with doorways wide enough for her wheelchair to navigate.
“Now I can go to the bathroom, I can take a shower, I can move in my house,” Ramadhan said. “I ask you please keep supporting this program so we can help other women like me. I’m happy I can see your faces. May God bless you.”
Immigration Legal Defense
Raul Preciatto Mendez thanked the commissioners for continuing to support early childhood and family stability programs offered through Latino Network. He said since Donald Trump was elected President in 2016, the social service nonprofit has had to respond to an increase in racist and nationalist rhetoric, requiring an investment in training and community organizing.
“The culture of fear is pervasive,” he said. “What was once anticipated to be a short-term response, is a new reality of life. We must invest in capacity to help families navigate the legal system.”
Jeanice Chieng, an immigration attorney with IRCO, thanked Multnomah County for investing in a legal fund to help immigrants and refugees at risk of deportation. The county provided $100,000 last year to pay for immigration legal aid. The proposed 2019 budget increases that fund to $160,000.
“I want to thank the county for its investment in community legal services. It’s working,” Chieng said. “Direct time with attorneys is a really honest need, especially in this political climate. There are so many barriers for clients who come here. Housing, employment, healthcare, legal barriers. Navigating that is so hard for a new immigrant or refugee. … So many people worry about their status, we appreciate your investment.”
IRCO client Ayan Hussein, a refugee, said she realized too late that she had to apply for a green card, and her authorization lapsed. “I came to IRCO and got help from the immigration lawyer sitting next to me,” Hussein said of Chieng. “So now I have my green card. If this program was not there I wouldn’t have my green card, I wouldn’t be working right now. Thank you.”
The county’s investment goes in part to a team of immigration lawyers at Catholic Charities’ Center for Immigration Defense.
“It has been amazing. We really thank you for this project,” said program director John Herrera. Also, he said, he could speak as an immigrant to say how difficult the immigration system is. Immigrants don’t have the right to a lawyer when facing deportation proceedings, and a private attorney can cost $10,000 to $20,000. Herrera asked the county to contribute to a Universal Representation fund to ensure people who must appear in federal immigration court don’t face a judge alone.
“One of the great tenants of American law is the right to representation. But that doesn’t transfer over to immigration proceedings,” said Herrera’s colleague, attorney May Low, who also asked commissioners to support universal representation. “You don’t have to have committed a crime. You just have to be an immigrant.”
Iván Hernández also spoke in support of universal representation. He said he was 5 when he came to the United States, without proper documentation. He has since had the chance to adjust his status, but he needed legal help to do so. “The immigration system is very, very complicated,” he said. “With universal representation it will allow us to feel a little more safe. You have the opportunity to be a leader and make our communities feel safe, to feel welcome.”
Madina Abukar, 16, a sophomore at Madison High School, urged commissioners to continue to support IRCO’s gang prevention program. The program has helped Abukar’s family navigate a cultural divide between a Somali mother adherent to her faith, and a Muslim daughter who also wants to play basketball and become a lawyer. Abukar said she connected with a mentor from the gang prevention program after her older brother was arrested for dealing drugs. The Somali-speaking mentor helped her and her family through much more than understanding the court documents her mother had to sign, she told commissioners.
“Us kids, we have a lot we need to do,” Abukar said. “To clean, take care of the kids, trying to get everything in order and focus on school at the same time.” Abukar takes care of her younger siblings, prepares meals and works a part-time job. Yet her mother balked when she wanted to play basketball. “So you want to be a guy?” she asked her daughter. But Abukar’s mentor backed her up, explaining to the mother that the girl needed time to play and to focus on her homework.
“Working with IRCO was pretty awesome,” Abukar said.
Dung Ho, tenant coordinator with the Community Alliance of Tenants, said they have fielded about 47,000 calls from tenants since they launched in 1997. They offer community workshops and programs in languages other than English. And their services have never been more important than today.
“We’re currently in a housing crisis, so it’s important to be able to talk tenants through situations, to teach them how to advocate for themselves,” Ho said. “I just ask you to continue to help out the hotline, and protect the most vulnerable in our community.”
One mother asked the county to support the Morrison Child and Family Center program, Counterpoint. She said her son was 8 when a neighbor confided in them that the boy had molested their 3-year-old daughter.
“We were extremely concerned. Worried he might live a life in the judicial system,” the mother told commissioners. The family couldn’t afford a private psychologist, but they found help through the county-funded program Counterpoint. Their son saw a counselor there. They attended family therapy, and parenting classes. “It strengthened our family and gave us hope for our future,” the mother said. “We were better parents. Our son and the community were safer.”
Francis Kham, a community health worker with IRCO, asked the county to extend its support for bilingual, bicultural community health workers who can ease the transition for immigrants and refugees coming to the United States. Kham, who immigrated from Myanmar in 2015, said he had to learn the hard way that it’s illegal to fish in Portland, and that one needs a license to pick mushrooms.
“If we have more community health workers we can prevent all these things before it takes too long,” he said. “I would love to request more support for my community as well as other communities.”
Mark Holloway, with Social Venture Partners, asked for $100,000 to explore the possibility of universal access to preschool support. “If kids are not at grade level by the time they leave kindergarten, they have a 13 percent chance of catching up. We have to do early education… Our kids really need this support.”