Digest: Thursday, April 7, 2022

Fires at Voz and SJAC

The Voz Worker Center is indefinitely closed after a fire at their Parkrose building early Wednesday morning. A mini-bus recently purchased by Voz to transport people to their jobs was also destroyed.

The center is operated by the Voz Workers’ Rights Education Project. Voz only recently moved into the location and was in the process of fundraising to outfit the building.

The Social Justice Action Center in the Buckman neighborhood also experienced a fire the same night. Residents of the building reported recent threats of arson.

Portland Fire and Rescue’s investigations are reportedly on-going, including into any connections to a series of three fires in the Parkrose neighborhood late Monday night and early Tuesday morning.

Ways to help

PPS suspends teacher who spoke out at school board meetings

Portland Public Schools placed Bryan Chu, a teacher at Harriet Tubman Middle School, on paid administrative leave at the beginning of the month. School administrators pointed to Chu’s participation in school board meetings as part of the reason why, citing behavior they consider disruptive. The allegations against Chu also include ‘coaching’ students to write letters protesting PPS’ plans to move HTMS as part of the Interstate 5 expansion and told a student to “shut up.” Another teacher, Chris Riser from Ockley Green Middle School, is also under investigation but has not been placed on leave.

Several of Chu’s students have defended his actions, especially against claims that he coached them: one student told OPB, “We had no idea that the relocation and the expansion of the highway was happening, and he gave us the resources to become these advocates for our rights as students, and for our voices to be heard.” HTMS students walked out over Chu’s suspension on Wednesday and many attended PPS’ board meeting Wednesday evening.

Another protest against Chu’s suspension is planned for Friday.

Chu has previously faced criticism from PPS’ administration over his outspokeness on issues like middle school curricula and equity. Riser was previously placed on administrative leave over a student-led walkout demanding justice for Quanice Hayes in 2018.

Unprecedented demand for support services

Oregon’s online enrollment system for key social safety net programs is struggling to process applications in a timely fashion. Known as ONE, the online system replaced phone and in-person applications last year. In addition to enrollment in benefits programs, ONE is used to manage appointments, communicate with recipients, and handle information for 1.46 million Oregon residents.

While the ability to process these applications in a reasonable amount of time is important, one statement seems more important. In an interview with the Oregon Capital Chronicle, Nate Singer, eligibility program director, said:

“We are at the highest caseload that I’ve ever seen in my 15 years here…We are seeing caseloads that are two or three times larger than what eligibility workers previously experienced and at a time when the system is still very new to workers.”

ONE has handled record numbers of applications in the last year, but the overwhelming levels of need mean that technical approaches won’t solve the problem. Other parts of the benefits system are also struggling with the workload: the Oregon Department of Human Services call center saw wait times as high as 83 minutes in February, with averages hovering around 16 to 17 minutes. ODHS Director Fariborz Pakseresht asked the state legislature to fund 330 new positions for processing applications at DHS during the short session in February, but the state legislature failed to do so.

Systems like ONE are required to meet federal timelines in processing applications — states are expected to process Medicaid applications within 45 days of receipt, for instance. Currently, ODHS processes an average of 67,000 applications each month. In March 2022, the department had more than 8,000 applications in the system that were not handled within federal deadlines, including some applications which were initially filed in March 2021. That’s down from a high of 28,000 unprocessed applications past their deadlines in December 2021.

Applications are unlikely to decline, both due to the ongoing pandemic and program changes:

By Thursday Bram

Thursday Bram founded PDX.Vote after making numerous zines, newsletters, and other media about politics in Portland, Oregon. Thursday has also written for publications ranging from Autostraddle.com to Entrepreneur Magazine. You can find more of Thursday's work at ThursdayBram.com.