By COLIN STAUB
In the race for the top Multnomah County elected seat, all eyes are on the most visible crisis facing the county: homelessness.
The Labor Press spoke with three candidates for Multnomah County Chair who are endorsed or have enjoyed past support from unions: Jessica Vega Pederson, Sharon Meieran and Lori Stegmann. All are current commissioners, and they’re seeking the office that sets the course for the commission and leads the budget-crafting process each year. Current Chair Deborah Kafoury can not seek reelection and will end an eight-year term at the end of 2022.
Pederson, sometimes known by her initials JVP, has the bulk of union endorsements, including from labor coalitions and 10 individual unions.
Meieran is endorsed by the Oregon Nurses Association.
Stegmann, an insurance agent and former Gresham City Councilor, isn’t endorsed by unions for Chair but was endorsed for her current commissioner role by the Northwest Oregon Labor Council in 2018.
Another candidate in the race, Sharia Mayfield, doesn’t have union endorsements but has a labor connection as an employment discrimination lawyer representing workers.
The commissioners mostly agree on labor issues. For instance, all three commissioners voted last fall in favor of a labor harmony resolution for behavioral health and preschool providers that contract with the county, and they see the potential to expand that concept to cover additional contractors.
An emergency room physician, Meieran has been a vocal advocate for health care workers. She recently spoke to Providence nurses at a picket hosted by ONA, which has endorsed her candidacy.
Meieran is the most outspoken critic of the county’s current response to homelessness. She wants to develop a network of small-footprint sites with 10 structures for shelter, and safe parking sites. They have basic amenities like a toilet and running water, laundry and trash service.
“If we had one tiny site in each neighborhood in Portland, we have 100 neighborhoods, that’s 1,000 people with a minimal impact,” Meieran said. Their small footprint means the sites can be started up quickly and easily, she added.
Then, she wants to organize services (like mental health and addiction treatment) so they’re easily accessible around the network of established spaces for the homeless.
Meieran proposed a similar plan during last year’s county budgeting process but fellow commissioners did not support funding it.
Meieran thinks more and better data collection will allow the county to provide the right services. She wants the county to maintain a by-name list, which is a list of everybody in a community experiencing homelessness. (It’s a concept developed by nonprofit Community Solutions.)
She also wants to simplify the bureaucratic web of agencies charged with homelessness response. The City of Portland, Multnomah County, Metro, a network of nonprofit agencies and the Home Forward housing authority, all handle some facet of homelessness response.
“So many people have responsibility that no one has responsibility,” Meieran said.
Jessica Vega Pederson
Pederson, a former state representative and tech professional, is endorsed from the Northwest Oregon Labor Council, Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council, AFSCME, IAFF 43, IBEW, Teamsters, Ironworkers, LiUNA, OEA, PCC-FFAP, Carpenters and UFCW.
On the homelessness crisis, Pederson pointed to current county investments in behavioral health services as a sign of progress. She referenced the $26 million county-led Behavioral Health Resource Center in downtown Portland that’s slated to open this year, specifically serving homeless people with mental illness. It gives people a safe place to go during the day, provides them with a set mailing address, and offers shelter beds for people who have trouble at other shelters due to behavioral health problems. Pederson wants to duplicate it elsewhere in the county.
Pederson added that the county needs to work with the state legislature to secure more resources to expand access to behavioral health services (Oregon had the worst score in a 2020 nationwide ranking of adult mental health prevalence and access to care, according to the nonprofit Mental Health America).
The county and Portland city government created the Joint Office of Homeless Services in 2016, and Pederson noted it had few resources at the beginning. Funding for the office has since ramped up to the point where, last year, commissioners budgeted more than $150 million for the joint office. And the Metro housing bond, approved by voters in 2020 and estimated to raise about $250 million per year over the next 10 years to tackle housing and homelessness in the metro area, provides a stable revenue source to allow that type of expansion, Pederson said.
All that’s to say, she says there is a lot in the works right now
“The county is doing the best we can,” Pederson says. “We can do better by advocating for more resources and working collaboratively with our partners to get those resources out into the community effectively.”