Multnomah County Chair Kafoury looks back on 2020
It feels nearly impossible to look back on the tumultuous events of 2020 and not feel overwhelmed by the sheer number and magnitude of the challenges that our community has faced. We confronted not just a single crisis, but a cascading succession of crises that often overlapped with and amplified each other: the COVID-19 pandemic, the calls for racial justice and civil unrest, toxic levels of wildfire smoke, homelessness and a teetering local economy.
We've all been touched by some combination of these, and it's made for an undeniably difficult year. But as 2020 comes to a close, the ways in which we've endured — the grace, compassion, generosity and resolve that we have, by and large, shown each other — give me hope for how we will continue to move forward into and through a new year.
As the local public health authority, the largest social services provider in the state and the home of numerous public safety functions, Multnomah County has been at the forefront of addressing these crises. And while we've been stretched, we've also worked incredibly hard to be the local government that our community needs us to be: one that responds both quickly and equitably, and uses every bit of the limited resources we have.
Multnomah County began preparing for COVID-19 early, knowing that our community — especially the most vulnerable — couldn't afford for us to be tentative in the face of an oncoming emergency. Our Public Health Division launched its response team just one week after the first case of the virus was recognized in the United States, fully activated our emergency operations a month later and declared a state of emergency the day after the first case of COVID-19 was identified in the county.
While leading our community through this pandemic as the trusted voice of public health, we've also taken steps to respond to the needs of those who have been put most at risk of the virus, and least connected to the information and resources that could protect them, by centuries of racist policies. With substantial input from the community, the county expediently crafted a plan to ensure that Black, Indigenous and other communities of color were served equitably throughout the pandemic.
Parts of that plan included collecting and publishing the disease-spread by race and ethnicity, and placing some of the first drive-through testing sites in the state in neighborhoods with higher concentrations of COVID-19 cases, including among people of color and those working in frontline jobs. We've worked closely with local organizations to get critical health information into the hands of communities of color and refugee communities, and coordinated with school districts to provide thousands of meals for struggling children and their families.
Multnomah County worked around the clock to redesign our homeless shelter system to follow physical-distancing guidelines without losing a single shelter bed, giving people experiencing homelessness the chance to find safety in our shelters. We opened medical motels to support those who were at particular risk of getting sick or showing symptoms while also scaling up our outreach efforts.
Additionally, the Department of County Human Services trained more than 3,000 staff across 600 adult care homes and provided isolation options, while the Sheriff's Office and Department of Community Justice transformed every step of how they house adults and juveniles in our custody.
Standing at the intersection of health, social services and public safety uniquely positions Multnomah County to help transform systems that have historically harmed or fallen short of helping Black people and other people of color, into those that equitably serve all community members. When the streets of our community filled with calls for racial justice, police accountability and the transformation of the criminal justice system in the wake of George Floyd's murder, the county accelerated our efforts to make meaningful upstream investments, disinvestments in incarceration and even advancing climate justice. The county also developed and committed to a robust set of policy commitments designed to dismantle systemic racism in Oregon as part of the Reimagine Oregon project.
Multnomah County has also worked hard to leverage every last dollar of CARES Act funding that we've been given to distribute as direct aid. Several months ago, the county received $26.4 million for rent assistance with a mandate to spend it all by the end of 2020. While jurisdictions across the country have struggled to distribute their full allotments before the deadline, we are on track to spend down every rent assistance dollar we have, thanks in large part to our close partnerships with community-based organizations that have helped us make sure the aid reaches those who need it most.
Similarly, when the county received funding to support local businesses that had been hanging on by a thread because of public health restrictions intended to slow the spread of the virus, we quickly established partnerships that have since allowed us to distribute the relief to businesses most in need, as quickly as possible and before the deadline.
Our community's recovery from the events of this year will require vision, solidarity and a commitment to creating a new normal that's more equitable and just. It's a tall task, but the way that Multnomah County has consistently shown up for our community — and the ways the community has shown up for each other — throughout 2020 gives me great hope that we'll endure and thrive together in the year to come.
Deborah Kafoury is chairwoman of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners and a former legislator.
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