Jacob St. Claire had never had a job. It seemed impossible under the circumstances. He was living in a trailer with his dad, who has a disability, and they had no running water, reliable electricity, transportation or phone. But then St. Claire connected with a career coach at Human Solutions, thanks to a County-funded workforce program. He enrolled in a janitorial training course, and today, after seven months of earning union wages, he can afford a two-bedroom apartment for himself and his dad.
“Now I have goals for myself,” he said Monday night at the first of four public hearings on Multnomah County’s fiscal year 2020 budget. “I would like someday to become a job coach.”
Salvador Aguirre also found support through the same Economic Opportunity Program, which is sponsored by the County and run by Worksystems, Inc. Human Solutions, one of many partners in the program, helped him find an apartment. He became a peer recovery mentor, began working as an interpreter and took a job at Transition Projects as a peer recovery counselor.
“I want to say, ‘Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,'” he told the Board.
Juwan Feliciano, a father of four, found out about the program through Portland Opportunities Industrial Center (POIC) after being released from prison. The program supported him through the process of repeatedly applying for housing and being denied.
“Obviously with a felony you get denied a lot of times. A lot of closed doors, time after time,” Feliciano said. But the folks at Human Solutions stuck with it. They helped him appeal a denial by providing letters of recommendation, and he secured a three-bedroom apartment. A career coach, meanwhile, helped connect him with the Northwest College of Construction, and today he works full time in the field.
About 30 people testified Monday night at the hearing, praising programs that changed their lives and asking for continued support. The Board will hold three additional public hearings on the Chair’s proposed budget, along with a series of public work sessions, before it votes May 30 to adopt a final budget.
“We appreciate you have made efforts and investments in communities of color, in a way that was with an equity lens,” said Paul Lumley, executive director of NAYA Family Center and board chair of the Coalition of Communities of Color. “We hope that continues to be your core value, but we’re aware you’re going to have challenging budget cycles ahead.”
The largest source of money County Commissioners can spend come from property taxes. But those were capped by 1990s ballot measures and haven’t kept pace with the region’s growth. As a result, the cost of the County providing services has begun to outpace the County’s income. That gap is forecast to grow to $35 million within five years.
Chair Deborah Kafoury, who released her proposed budget April 25, acknowledged the challenge of determining where to make cuts.
“The budget shares our values, where we want to go, what we want for our people,” she said Monday night. “Hearing your input, your stories, your values is so important as we make decisions, and as, over the next few years, we have to make significant cuts to our programs.”
The proposed cuts include reductions to the Health Department’s Harm Reduction program, which provides medical care and outreach to people who use intravenous drugs through a wound care clinic and syringe exchange sites.
It would discontinue support for an immigration legal defense fund, launched in 2017 to help community members respond to the Trump administration’s sharp increase in local arrests and deportation proceedings. Immigrants who face deportation do not have a legal right to representation.
“Your contribution has been a great source of support, and it has allowed us to have a larger collaboration between attorneys,” said Samantha Ratcliffe, an immigration attorney with Metropolitan Public Defenders. “County support is crucial to serving families in removal proceedings. Without County support there are individuals who will not receive the legal services they need to navigate a really complex legal service.’’
Homeless advocates and shelter staff asked the County to increase funding for the agencies that provide those services, citing challenging working conditions and low wages.
A recent poll of Transition Projects employees found nearly 80 percent had felt threatened or worse at work at least once. It’s part of working with clients who include people struggling with addiction or chronic mental illness. But most of those workers make just $13.39 an hour, said residential advocate Tim Ledwith.
The Chair’s proposed budget maintains the County’s commitment to homelessness services, SUN schools, and voter access. It also funds the implementation of the Workforce Equity Strategic Plan, the most focused effort in County history to address workforce discrimination and disparities. The proposal includes the creation of an independent complaints investigation unit, management training, and new equity and inclusion positions in the Office of Diversity and Equity.
The additional staff would help support employees with disabilities who are seeking reasonable accommodations.
“Thank you for including this,” said Jill Jessee, an administrative analyst in the Department of County Human Services. She said she gets two or three requests a week from people who need help requesting reasonable accommodations but who meet resistance from supervisors or human resources staff.
“It’s a difficult process and it’s not applied across departments or even within divisions the same,” she said. “Having an equity specialist would help bring some structure and consistency to the accommodation process.”
The next board meeting is. May 8, 2019, Multnomah Building Boardroom, 501 SE Hawthorne Blvd. in Portland.