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Straight Talk: Multnomah County chair says progress is being made on homeless crisis

Chair Deborah Kafoury said the Metro supportive housing services measure passed in May of 2020 means 1,300 families will be housed this year.

PORTLAND, Ore. — It's been six years since then Portland Mayor Charlie Hales declared the city's homeless crisis an emergency.

However, the number of tents and unsanctioned camps around the city have many Portland residents wondering what's taking so long to get people housed.

That frustration is reflected in a new non-profit social welfare organization, People for Portland, which is running TV ads and placing billboards pressuring city and county leaders to act with more urgency.

People for Portland co-founder Kevin Looper told KGW on Straight Talk in November elected leaders aren't doing enough, fast enough.

"We need to be doing things on the human scale, meaning solving the problems tomorrow better than we did it today and moving people off the street as fast as we possibly can. If this were a flood, if this were a natural disaster, we would have solutions for people," he said.

RELATED: Straight Talk: People for Portland is trying to hold elected officials accountable. Is it working?

Kafoury rejects idea leaders aren’t acting quickly

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury was a guest on this week's episode of Straight Talk.

Kafoury said she rejects the premise the city and county aren't acting quickly. She said they've expanded the shelter system and made it better and more welcoming. She pointed to money being spent from the Metro supportive housing services measure passed in May of 2020 that will place 1,300 families into permanent housing this year.

RELATED: Portland, Multnomah County leaders pledge additional $38 million to address homeless crisis

"We are moving quickly. I think it's very easy to say things should be moving more quickly. We are all frustrated about what's happening in our community right now and we are frustrated rents are so high and frustrated people are sleeping on the streets. And there are a lot of people who are working really hard to ensure as many people as possible as quickly as possible get off the streets and into housing," she said.

Credit: KGW Staff
In early November, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury announced a new $38 million plan to address homelessness.

Kafoury also didn't mince words about Looper, a political consultant, who ran her re-election campaign and is now working on the People for Portland campaign.

RELATED: City leaders swamped with emails from People for Portland campaign

"I'll just be honest. He was paid to run the supportive services campaign a couple of years ago. He's getting paid to run this campaign right now, so he's a political consultant and he'll go where the money is," she said.

Outreach providers: "We want to make sure we're showing up for people"

Homeless service providers Mercedes Elizalde from Central City Concern and Stacy Borke from Transition Projects were also guests on this week's episode of Straight Talk.

Borke said a lot of people they serve are just trying to survive and figure out what's next for them. She said shelter beds are near full and outreach teams are on the street every day providing gear for people and helping them with their next steps.

RELATED: Portland woman giving back to shelter that helped her transition out of homelessness

"Whether that's reengaging in health care, a lot of folks have kind of stepped back from health care as we've been going through the pandemic for the last couple of years. And figuring out how to reconnect to resources, and how do they get back into housing," Borke said.

Credit: Maggie Vespa
A Transition Projects outreach team hands out supplies in downtown Portland during June's heat wave.

Elizalde, the public policy director for Central City Concern said her organization is adjusting to the growing needs in the community.

"Every day folks' lives are getting better. Folks are getting housed. We never stopped housing people during the pandemic. We've opened new housing in the midst of all this. But no matter what we want to make sure we are continuing to show up for people," Elizalde said.

The effort to stop more homeless experiences

One of Central City Concern's top priorities is trying to prevent even more people from experiencing homelessness. Elizalde said there are structural factors in Oregon that she'd like to see change to try to prevent more people from ending up on the street. That includes ending the practice of releasing people from jail or the hospital when they have nowhere to go.

RELATED: Central City Concern is on a mission to end homelessness
"We need to have that larger commitment from all our partners that we don't release people into homelessness. We don't exit people from any kind of program, any kind of institution and let them sleep out on the street," she said.

Chair Kafoury's political future

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury can't run for re-election because of term limits.

Several candidates have announced they will run for the county's top leadership position including three of Kafoury's fellow commissioners. Kafoury said for now, she won't endorse anyone but with so many candidates in the race she expects the May election will result in a run-off. At that time, she said it's likely she'll make an endorsement.

As for her own political future, Kafoury wouldn't say. She insisted she's only focused on the pressing issues facing the county, such as housing, homelessness, building libraries and getting the county's universal preschool program launched. However, after some time off, a return to public service seems inevitable.

"I definitely am going to take a vacation that seems to be missing from my life. I've been in public service all my life. It's a long honored family tradition. I'm sure whatever I am going to do next will involve serving our community," she said.

Reason for hope

As Multnomah County Chair, one of Kafoury's top issues remains addressing homelessness. She wants area residents to know she understands their frustration surrounding the homeless crisis.

"I think we are all frustrated with what's happening. And we're frustrated that we might not be through this COVID nightmare — we've now got the Omicron variant out there," she said.

Even with the challenges, Kafoury is undeterred.

"I get up each morning and I'm filled with hope because I think the supportive services measure that voters were so smart to pass, even in the middle of COVID, is a game changer," she said.

Ways to Help

Transition Projects

There are many ways people can help serve their community and those who are experiencing homelessness.

Transition Projects is included in this year's Willamette Week Give!Guide

Volunteer opportunities are also available at Transition Project's severe weather shelters

Click here to learn more. 

Central City Concern

Community members can donate online to Central City Concern or donate winter clothes like coats, hats, gloves, scarves, new socks and hand warmers at the Recycling and Reuse Operations Center (The ROC).

Click here to learn more.

Find other organizations at 211Info

211Info includes a number of local outreach providers and a list of items they desperately need going into the winter months.

Click here to learn more.

Straight Talk airs Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 6:30 p.m., and Sunday at 9:30 p.m.

Straight Talk is also available as a podcast.

WATCH: Straight Talk: People for Portland is trying to hold elected officials accountable

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