A look at the candidates in their words
On May 17, the Multnomah County Commission Chair’s seat will be up for grabs as Deborah Kafoury is completing her second term, which will put her at the term limit. Kafoury took office in 2015. While there, Kafoury has implemented several new services with the most notable being the Joint Office For Homeless Services, which she co-founded with the City of Portland, and A Home For Everyone, the region’s first community-wide strategy for preventing and ending homelessness. Kafoury also oversaw funding to build the pilot Behavioral Health Resource Center, which will help to fill the gap in mental healthcare in the downtown area, as well as be a drop-in day center, have transitional housing options and a host of other services.
The county chair acts as sole authority to run the county’s administrative offices and manage their employees. The chair is responsible for executing policies set by the board and preparing the county budget for the board’s approval. The chair has first say on funding many social programs, especially those that affect the houseless community. The position is quite autonomous when compared with other county officials, with room to do as one sees fit.
Those candidates seeking the position of Multnomah County Chair really need to have vision in regards to the homeless crises Portland is currently seeing. They also need to be sympathetic to the needs of those individuals without housing if we’re going to retain funding for those programs aimed to house people who don’t have housing.
The race for the seat started with three current commissioners, Jessica Vega Pederson (District 3), Lori Stegmann (District 4), and Sharon Meirian (District 1), as well as employment discrimination lawyer Sharia Mayfield and former director of JOIN Shannon Singleton. Singleton has since dropped out of the race as she was named the interim director of the Joint Office of Homelessness by Kafoury.
Two additional candidates entered the race too late for me to speak with them. Bruce Broussard, who ran failed campaigns for mayor in 2016 and 2020 and one in 2018 for county commissioner in District Two, is one candidate. The other late entrant is Joe Demers, a truck driver in the waste industry who also has ran for office in the Oregon House Of Representatives District 49 but withdrew before the 2020 general election. He hasn’t held any public offices. His ideology is rooted in the Republican Party and according to his Ballotpedia candidate survey, his answers were predictable and along party line rhetoric.
I asked Meirian, Stegmann, and Mayfield similar questions, from why they wanted to be chair to more expansive inquiries about their views regarding homelessness, their programs, and what they would do differently. Below are the answers to those questions.They have been lightly edited for readability. After many emails and several phone messages, Vega Pederson never returned my attempts to reach her for an interview. It would have been nice to have heard her perspective on the homeless crises we are in.
Why do you want to be chair of the Multnomah County Commission?
“There’s a potential to do tremendous good in our community in a time of crises… I learned as a commissioner there are certain limitations on what you can do: the county budget is primarily set by the chair (an eight million dollar budget), the agendas are set by the chair. The chair really sets the vision and direction of the county.”
“As an immigrant and person of color who grew up with housing and food insecurity, I know firsthand the challenges too many of our community members face daily. I was able to rise up out of poverty with the support of public systems. I want to make sure that everyone has access to those same support systems.”
“I have the track record of achievement and an eye to get things done. Multiple crises have worsened in the region due in part to Chair Kafoury’s absolutist focus on long-term solutions instead of emergency action. As chair, I’d push for urgent action to ‘raise the floor’ and get people off the streets into better environments.”
What sets you apart from the current chair?
“What sets me apart at this time is the confluence of crises we are facing at this time. It is houselessness, it is mental health and addictions. These are my core issues. I know these in my heart and soul. I know the people, I know the systems, I connect people on the ground, I can address things in a different way…I have the background, experience and vision to triage crises.”
“I will fund the Behavioral Health Emergency Coordination Network. By deflecting low-risk, high-need people from the criminal justice system and into the behavioral health system, we can better address the inequities embedded in our legal, justice and health systems. This 24/7, first responder drop-off site will be designed for people who are experiencing an addiction and/or mental health crises…As chair I will provide a more centralized and streamlined continuum of services for houseless residents that includes increased shelter beds, alternative shelter (including safe car and RV camping), transitional housing, permanent supportive housing and affordable housing.”
“Because our systems are so fragmented it has resulted in gaps and duplication of services. We have to be intentional about what and where to invest our limited funding and the best way to do that is by using evidence-based data. That’s why as chair, I will create a streamlined database system that inventories our resources and partners to create a true network of services whether public, private or community based. It will take every single one of us along with partnerships within the business community, the faith-based community, nonprofits, neighborhood associations, property managers, and anyone and everyone who has something to offer that will result in bringing people in, off of the streets.”
“I’m not soiled by the dust of political experience, and that’s a plus. I do have experience in government and law, which would serve me well as chair. At the county level, I’ve done criminal defense cases. At the Oregon level, I was an assistant attorney general for some time handling criminal appeals, police de-certifications, and prison cases. At the federal level, I worked for U.S. Senator Ron Wyden as an intelligence advisor and helped draft policy on the bicameral, bipartisan USA FREEDOM ACT to curtail mass surveillance. I own a small workers rights firm and am Ninth-Circuit certified so I understand complex legal issues surrounding what the government can do.”
With the homeless crises so evident, what would you implement?
“I would say that we need to be doing more for those unsheltered living outside then we are currently doing…I envision a holistic ecosystem of different kinds of shelter options, but I see it in the context of giving people options and choices and dignity to meet a variety of needs that can be done at scale.”
“We need to set a baseline. There are not enough places to have people go straight into housing. We don’t know what the individual need is right now, we have no idea what the count is, we don’t have a place where we can say this number of people need support for domestic violence or if this person needs job training or rent assistance. We don’t have a way to understand who needs what. Unless, we have that it’s hard to figure out how to engage and the work we do will be happenstance.”
“The lack of economic stability is why people need to rely on county services like shelter, healthcare, mental healthcare, rent assistance and more. My goal is to reduce that need by getting ahead of those issues. As the next chair, I will ensure those opportunities by establishing a Workforce Stability/Economic Development department to connect residents to family wage jobs. We can’t solve our housing and homeless crises or decrease gun violence levels without creating economic opportunity for everyone in Multnomah County.”
“We need to increase resources in mental health services by creating additional Behavioral Health Resource Centers that offer emergency and transitional housing as well as mental health services; work more collaboratively with public and private sector partners and community benefit organizations to rapidly rehouse individuals; and provide more emergency shelter especially for families and women; fund transitional and permanent supportive housing, and increase the number of affordable housing units.”
“The County has a $2.8 billion budget, of which tens of millions are earmarked for homeless services. I’d push to end unsanctioned camp areas by creating sanctioned areas for people to camp, keep their possessions, but still have access to showers, toilets, laundry services and garbage removal.”
“In the more medium-term, I’d push for more RV parks, tiny home villages, and low/high barrier shelter options. From there, we can link eligible disabled people to SSDI income, and begin helping people toward permanent housing and self-sustenance.”
“While Housing First may be a small part of the solution for people who recently slipped through the cracks and need a rent voucher for a month or two, for those with trauma, severe drug addiction, or mental health needs, I’d focus on expanding access to free dual-diagnosis treatment (both mental health and drug addiction). For anyone who is dangerous and violent to others or oneself, I do support civil commitment of them through programs like Project Respond where clinicians and trained law enforcement officers are dispatched to mental health crises, a clinician determines if medical transport is needed, and the police assist.”
Supportive housing has been a successful model for those experiencing long-term homelessness. Do you think this can be improved upon and if yes, how?
“Frankly this is some of the frustration that I have: voters passed Supportive Housing Services measure two years ago and that’s going to be for Multnomah County alone one billion dollars over 10 years, so my question and what I have had difficulty tracking at the county level is how we’re doing that, that is the goal and what we came up with is ‘LIP’, a local implementation plan for the bond measure that is difficult for me to comprehend. It’s 30 pages and shows how dysfunctional the decision making process is.”
“It feels like we are in this alternative universe. So many individuals are coming up with one-offs and ideas, different kinds of approaches that are mainly reactive and not thinking holistically about what we need to be doing to create an eco system that works together to support people and provide them what they want and need as individuals so they can be supported.”
“I will look for more opportunities to contribute county assets and expertise to create more housing. Sometimes the role of good government is to get out of the way. And that’s exactly what I made happen when my office helped remove the land use barriers faced by a new housing development that resulted in 224 affordable units. Now we have begun to place residents in hundreds of units of workforce housing serving families earning 30%-70% of the area median income.”
“I also led the effort to transfer 3.5 acres of county owned land in Troutdale to Home Forward to build nearly 100 affordable housing units, resulting in a significant contribution to our housing supply. I have advocated for increasing supportive housing programs like My Father’s House which reclaims at-risk houseless families by providing them with the life skills necessary to become permanently independent and productive members of our community. Residents develop skills and confidence in parenting, vocational, financial and recovery classes.”
“Additionally, I support the Salvation Army’s Bridgeway of Hope, which offers sober housing for individuals in recovery which includes classes on substance abuse, relapse prevention and skill-building, individual and group counseling, personalized rehabilitation plans, family reunification & re-entry into the workforce and workforce development.”
“A ladder or staircase approach is more in line with the successful Amsterdam model, as it is sanitation-shelter-treatment first. However, as long as someone is not a danger to self or others, the person may be content staying at any prong on the ladder (from sanctioned camp areas to tiny home villages). We can still work to get those people connected to services, steady income and financial stability. I would always work with the existing budget, prioritizing emergency damage-control action first. The homeshare program would require a few mediators on stand-by, but is otherwise not incredibly costly to set up.”
“Also with home sharing there could be up to 20,000 rooms in homes! I would essentially work with screened small mom-and-pop landlords to ensure County assistance in selecting a safe background-checked tenant (i.e. working class and students who need cheaper housing options like roommating or subletting situations). The County could assist with a master lease, security deposits, rental help if a tenant has an occasional financial hardship (to be attested under oath), and conflict resolution services, including finding another place for the tenant if there are irreconcilable differences (as courts can take forever). In return, the landlord could commit to offering affordable housing without the high financial risk, property damage risk, and real concern that an eviction if needed might take months. It’s a win-win for the tenants who may need small financial cushioning from the County to get into housing (especially if they have no credit), avoid lengthy eviction actions when conflicts arise, and to the landlords who want assurances.”
Editor’s note: The “Amsterdam model” referred to above is a perspective on Dutch housing policies popularized by American writer Michael Shellenberger. Past Dutch policies required that anyone without housing must stay in a shelter and focused on requiring people to attain sobriety before accessing permanent housing. However, it’s important to note that US and Dutch housing policies are difficult to compare because, first, more than half of available housing in the Netherlands is public housing with controlled rents and, second, because most people who are homeless in the Netherlands already receive some sort of social security benefit. The number of people who are homeless in the Netherlands has also been steadily growing since 2009.
In one minute, recap for our readers why you should be Multnomah County Chair?
“As a medical provider I recognize the underlying medical reality of addiction as a chronic medical condition. I have great colleagues. Our values align. All of us would make really good commissioners…To bring us together for the most urgent issues facing our community right now, homelessness, behavioral health and public safety.”
“It’s time for a change and new leadership. Frankly, I’m angry and disappointed in what our County has become. For too long, the same people have been pushing the same candidates and solutions. Given the depths of the multiple crises we face, it’s time we quit waiting for status quo leadership and elect someone who will implement immediate, real solutions to address crime, reduce homelessness and increase affordable housing. I am the only candidate that has implemented real world solutions and I am ready to bring those solutions to the entire county.”
“As a Gresham City Councilor and County Commissioner I have brought landlords and nonprofits together to house people experiencing homelessness. I am redeveloping nearly 90 acres of county-owned property that will include a workforce center, housing, and green space, and I have fought for and received funding for community policing models. As an adopted immigrant, I’m routinely underestimated, but that only makes me work harder. Real progress will only come when we admit our failures, stop waiting for perfect solutions and start taking immediate actions. As a mother, small business owner, and elected official, that’s what I have done, and will do as your County Chair.”
“Like most constituents, I’m disillusioned by the current failed leadership and can offer us a way forward and out of the political paralysis that is killing the region. Our current problem is not primarily funding but a lack of vision, direction, compromise, and commitment. Those are all qualities I’d bring to the table to ensure the people, not the political leaders, come first. That means overlooking differences when needed to uphold our fiduciary duty to the taxpayers who are demanding a radical shift immediately. I was born in Portland and want the best for the place I’ve always called home. Together, I am hopeful we can reclaim our streets, protect the most vulnerable, and improve livability standards for everyone. We just need to act. As I say, ‘don’t let perfection be the enemy of good.”
Who is the best?
Each of the candidates that I spoke to were equally passionate about their ideas and how they would implement those plans. They all offer a skill set that would serve the people of Multnomah County.
Meirian, Stegmann and Mayfield each spoke about their backgrounds and foundational experiences that led them to become who they are today.
- Meirian, who is an emergency medicine doctor, spoke about the revolving door that those with mental health and addiction issues face, as they come to get treatment, are released back to the streets, then go back through the emergency departments and back to nowhere.
- Stegmann drew upon her many years as a private business owner in Gresham and her time serving on Gresham City Council and many other public offices. Stegmann spoke about her childhood and how growing up an immigrant in a very white state shaped her fortitude today.
- Mayfield recounted the painful memory of her father’s unlawful arrest by the FBI as a suspect in the Madrid train bombings in March 2004. He was later released as the evidence presented proved to be false. This time in Mayfield’s life was pivotal in why she went into law.
When taking a look at each candidate’s plan of action, there are solutions that could be put into place with minimal extra funding and then there are plans that sound good but would be costly down the road while waiting on success.
For example, Stegmann’s plan is to fund more Behavioral Health Centers located throughout Multnomah County. These centers would serve the populace immediately, allowing a safe place for those experiencing crises as opposed to incarceration. This saves money overall and lessens the burden on police. In addition, Stegmann spoke about models that support those obtaining housing including people who live in their RV and cars, with spaces set aside for them. With the addition of the proposed database, knowing availability of housing alternatives as well as traditional housing in real time will cut down on duplicate paperwork, centralize information for easier access and provide an accurate count of people who need services in real time all for nominal costs.
Meirian also has ideas for a centralized database to help track home availability. Yet she did not really say how or what this database would look like. Meirian spoke about a holistic approach but, other than allowing for choices the homeless individual would make in their housing, there was no real outline. It sounds lofty at best and, without any real plan, it would be hard to place a dollar amount on any of the programs she’s spoken about.
Mayfield had ideas about housing but wants to focus on sobriety first. This model has shown to be ineffective as the individual is forced into treatment but will relapse without continuing care. This sets them up to risk losing their home when relapses occur, which happens more often than not. Mayfield’s mom- and- pop rooming idea will cost money to set up and maintain as those seeking a room will need background checks. This is not money well spent as a majority of homeless people are criminalized so they will have backgrounds that will exclude them. This will only help the smallest percent of those waiting for housing.
With the primary election drawing near, voters will make decisions that will affect themselves but also their unhoused neighbors. Yes, there is an exhaustion regarding the unhoused population and a sense that government on any level, city, county or national seems unable to quell the flood of those in need.
Affordable housing is just one component to the pyramid of reasons why one becomes shelterless but it is an important piece. The lack of affordable housing will only see more people lose their stability over time. Without viable improvement in affordable housing and mental health services the tragedy of souls entering the streets will only grow.
Your voice is the loudest with those we put into office. Scream, please, as if your neighbors depend on it, because they do.