Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury delivered her State of the County address Friday.
In her fifth-annual address as chair, Kafoury made announcements about new solutions for ongoing obstacles. Some of her priorities include shelter spaces and fair wages.
Notably, she announced that on Monday Multnomah County purchased the Bushong building in downtown Portland that will become a new mental health resource center.
“Our vision is to create a safe place where people can come inside, get a peaceful night’s rest, a place to wash their clothes and, most importantly, support from a community of people who know exactly what they’re going through because they’ve been there, too,” Kafoury said.
She also announced a transformation to the county’s family shelter system that will provide private spaces for families instead of a room with communal bunk beds.
She said new shelter spaces will be operational this summer.
“By June, in partnership with Human Solutions, we will have private spaces for 40 families at Lilac Meadows, a master-leased motel that will be modified to provide a full range of support services,” Kafoury said.
In the same vein, the county is supporting a new project in Lents providing 25 families private living space.
It’s also opening a shelter on Southeast Foster Road “that will include not just beds, a kitchen and laundry, but also classrooms, computers and case managers,” she said, as well as continuing to work on the Navigation Center downtown.
“The only way we’re going to save lives in this community and end homelessness is with housing,” Kafoury said. “That doesn’t mean it’s the only thing we have to do for people in a housing crisis. But it is the most important thing we have to do.”
With the influx of county construction projects — such as the new Gladys McCoy Health Department Headquarters and the new Central Courthouse, Kafoury also introduced a new fair pay initiative to prevent wage theft on county construction sites. It will educate workers to know their rights and provide technical assistance to contractors to ensure their workers are being paid correctly.
Along with these new projects, Kafoury also spoke on other continuing issues affecting the community such as racism and climate change.
She said that work is being done to address the diverse experiences of Multnomah County employees.
“In the last year, county employees shared painful, personal stories of the racism and discrimination they have faced on the job,” Kafoury said. “Our own data showed clear disparities in promotions and terminations.”
She said the county hired consultants and adopted recommendations to implement systemic and structural change to improve the experiences of underrepresented groups working at the county.
“We are creating an independent unit to manage discrimination complaints. We are building a new training, coaching and evaluation structure for our 800 managers,” Kafoury said. “Poverty, homelessness, substance use disorders and justice involvement affect many marginalized groups, but race is the magnifying effect across all areas.”
In another attempt to address racism in the community, Kafoury announced the opening of the Diane Wade House, an “Afro-Centric transitional housing program” for black women who have been in the criminal justice system.
“African Americans make up just 6% of this community but 20% of our jail population,” Kafoury said. “That cannot continue.”
Kafoury spoke on the county’s work to quell climate change such as supporting the group of young people suing state and federal governments to demand climate change action and adopting the Climate Action Plan with Portland.
“While carbon emissions in Oregon have gone up more than 10% since 1990, in Multnomah County, despite all the growth we’ve had, emissions have gone down 21%,” Kafoury said.
“I know a better world is possible because every day, I watch 6,000 county employees face the most complex and serious problems of our time with courage, creativity and heart,” she said.