The head of Multnomah County's government on Friday, March 5, said the county is positioned to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic while deploying its public health division to tackle other issues as well.
Chair Deborah Kafoury provided a virtual version of the yearly State of the County address, hosted by City Club of Portland, which was broken into different parts, including guest videos prepared by her four fellow commissioners as well as a Q-and-A with Kafoury's close ally and county-funded contractor, Central City Concern president and CEO Dr. Rachel Solotaroff.
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Encompassing almost the entire city of Portland as well as Gresham, Troutdale, Fairview, Wood Village and Maywood Park, the county is home to more than 800,000 people.
Kafoury not only chairs the board of commissioners as it forges the county's yearly $2 billion budget, she oversees the bureaucracy that spends it.
She said she sees the public health unit she oversees as having a growing role in the near future.
"Health isn't just about keeping the community safe from viruses and treating wounds. As we've seen over and over again this past year, our community's health depends on addressing all the inequities that put people's health and lives at risk ... Multnomah County Public Health will be a crucial pillar in the work of confronting the community's biggest challenges, like housing instability, climate change, gun violence and racism itself," she said.
Kafoury elaborated in her talk with Solotaroff, saying a more holistic "public health approach" to larger issues could require expansion of the county's public health spending and capabilities.
On gun violence, that "means that you're not just focused on, well, we've got to lock them up, or we've got to get the guns out of their hands of individuals," Kafoury said. "It's looking at upstream, it's looking to early childhood education. It's involving people who are out in the community working with youth, to us who are feeling disenfranchised, it's addressing racism, it's providing jobs and helping people get stable housing."
Solotaroff asked if Kafoury was suggesting "a different level of investment in public health" with more "robust" capabilities, or simply taking a different approach?
"I think it's both," Kafoury responded.
A former state lawmaker who joined the Multnomah County board in 2008 and successfully ran for chair in 2014, Kafoury has long pushed for better homeless services. She said increased supportive housing services have helped provide secure beds for 12,000 people who otherwise would be out on the streets.
She said a new behavioral health resource center and shelter downtown, to be located in a building downtown purchased in 2019, will "bring life-saving supports to people experiencing chronic homelessness in the downtown core."
She also cited the May 2020 regional supportive housing measure and the universal preschool measure approved by county voters in November 2020 as promoting equity, adding that the county is engaged in revamping the justice system as well.
"We're elevating the voices of community members who have experienced firsthand the brutality and the harms of a system explicitly designed to oppress people of color," she said.
Solotaroff asked how Kafoury would respond to people who fear recent tax measures could hurt the county's economic health.
Kafoury responded, that "they were done in a way that doesn't put a disproportionate harm on one particular sector of our community. And I think that the services that we're going to invest in will pay off in the future. We're paying right now for the impact of not having early childhood education for all children, when we have folks who don't graduate from high school who are unable to get jobs. We are paying right now for the homelessness crisis on our streets, where people are going from the emergency room and to jail, and back and forth, and that all costs money."
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