Roberta Eaglehorse-Ortiz had just cut short her hair, a recognition of others who had died.
“We’re mourning some of our elder women who are leaving and passing the torch,” she told commissioners Tuesday night during the third of four public hearings on the County’s fiscal year 2020 budget.
Now carrying that torch, and advocating for members of the Native community, Eaglehorse-Ortiz came out to champion the impact of the Future Generations Collaboration, a coalition of American Indian and Alaska Native community members, Native-serving organizations, and government agencies that work to increase healthy pregnancies and strengthen families in American Indian and Alaska Native communities.
“It’s a beautiful way for us to look at disparities in a strength-based way,” she said. “I just want to say thank you so much for the opportunity to continue this work.”
Roosevelt High School student Eva Agnus said the Future Generations Collaboration supports a new way of thinking for Native youth. She attends gatherings of young women where they talk about issues including alcoholism and addiction in a constructive way.
“It’s important for youth to do that,” she said. “It paves the way not only for our youth but for youth in the future.”
Dozens testified Tuesday night about programs that promote recovery, help people regain stability and protect victims. But many programs, all of them important, will face cuts in the next fiscal year. The County must close a $3.6 million deficit next year, and the future doesn’t look much brighter, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said at the hearing Tuesday.
“We are entering a period of structural deficit where the cost is more than the revenue coming in, and that is going to increase over the next four years,” she said. “These cuts seem painful. I assure you there will be more painful cuts to come. Every program we provide is important, but we have to make these tough choices.”
She thanked those who came out or submitted written statements, saying that feedback is especially important when budgets must shrink. Kafoury encouraged people to testify at the fourth and final public hearing, scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 22, at Roosevelt High School.
Advocates asked the Board to reconsider cuts to the County’s harm reduction program budget, which includes syringe exchange. Harm reduction, like many public health programs, relies primarily on County general funds, which are more vulnerable than programs that receive state and federal support.
“The people working in harm reduction stand at the intersection of two crises: homelessness and addiction,” said Haven Wheelock, who runs the syringe exchange program at Outside In — a longtime County partner in harm reduction. “We need to scale up access to evidence-based treatment, and harm reduction is just that — evidence-based.”
Reed College student Madelyn O’Kelley-Bangsberg, a syringe exchange volunteer whose father is Dean of the OHSU–PSU School of Public Health, held up a tin “cooker” which looks like the metal bottom of a tea candle. The cookers are used to heat up a drug for injection, and there was a supply shortage recently, she told the board.
Instead, people cut tin cans in half, and that spurred an increase in disease transmission and bacterial infections, she said.
Elona Dellabough volunteers with people who use injection drugs and said she sees the complications from contaminated syringes in her work as a nurse at a local hospital.
“There is nothing so striking as the duration and intensity of healthcare interventions required to treat complications of injection drug use,” she said. “Beyond the significant impact on individuals, there are clear systems impacts, ranging from the ways hospitals have to respond, the financial impacts of what is often a four- to six-week course of antibiotics, and multiple surgeries.”
Harm reduction could face budget constraints while one-time-only programs could be cut entirely, including an in-jail sergeant position that focused on sex trafficking intelligence and referral.
Funding for Legal Services Day — a partnership between Multnomah Public Defenders, Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office and the Rosewood Initiative — to help residents waive traffic and court fees in exchange for community service hours is being discontinued after two years. But $100,000 of that will continue to support a similar Community Legal Clinic run by the Department of County Human Services.
Other budgets are expected to avoid significant restraints. Those include culturally-specific addiction treatment and peer mental health programs.
Participants of the Latino addiction treatment program Puentes said they recovered in large part because they found help in Spanish from mentors who were also Latino.
“I left Cuba in 1995 looking for the American Dream. I abandoned my family and culture. I felt lonely and depressed,” said Teodecio Mora. “I didn’t know how to get out from this darkness. Then one day, by the Grace of God, someone talked to me about a program called Puentes.”
Members of Northstar Clubhouse, a peer-led mental health recovery center came out to thank the Board for its support, including a budget to expand outreach to a more diverse audience.
Advisory Board Member Lynn Boose said he’s worked in mental health services for 4 decades and never seen results like he has through Northstar. The club helps members work on job skills and applications, but also provides peer support and social and recreational activities for members who are unemployed due to their mental health.
“When I found out about my mental health challenge, I didn’t know what to do,” said member Fessensa Sishu. “I moved here to be closer to my daughter, and when I came to the clubhouse, I hear from Americans talking about these challenges, I realized I wasn’t alone.”
Matt Stiefvater said he came to the clubhouse after struggling with depression for years. And he found something no hospital or treatment program had been able to give him.
“The magic that happens at Northstar is the peer support. We see in each other what we want to become,” he said. “Without that, you go back into the same situation you came out of. There’s nothing there and you go back to the same cycle.”