Deborah Kafoury Comments at February 2 Meeting of Interfaith Alliance

Guest speaker at the February 2 Interfaith Alliance meeting, held at Westminster Presbyterian Church was Deborah Kafoury, Multnomah County Chair.     Here are excerpts from her remarks : “Thank you for having me here today. If there is one thing that I’ve learned during my time in public office, it’s that no one person -- no matter how rich or powerful they might be -- can have the same impact as a community that’s working together in common cause.

This nation’s wealth is unevenly shared across our communities and the impact of that injustice is staggering. We see people sleeping on our streets, or huddled in their cars and many of us think -- this problem is too big for me -- I don’t know what to do to help. But the people in this room roll up their sleeves and get to work. So thank you.

“My good friend Israel Bayer often says that homelessness isn’t normal. In 2016, he gave a talk called Homelessness In America: The Journey Home. I hope you’ll look it up online. In that speech, Israel takes us on a journey through our past. He talks about the massive federal cuts to housing services in the 1980s during the Reagan administration that led to street homelessness throughout our cities.  From 1978 to 1983 the federal housing budget was slashed from $83 billion to $18 billion. And since then, we haven’t done much as a nation to make up the gap.  

“Street homelessness is the most visible sign of poverty, and the basic injustice of people being forced to sleep on our streets should inspire us to action.  But it is important to recognize that for hundreds of thousands of people in our community, poverty is a crushing burden they bear in the shadows.

“ On any given night, there are nearly 1,700 people sleeping on our streets. But across Multnomah County in 2014 one third of residents couldn’t afford to pay for the basic things in life: food, medicine and housing. That’s a quarter of a million people.

  • 44% of the county’s population in poverty were communities of color, and 26% of the county’s communities of color were in poverty.
  • 19% of the county’s population in poverty is foreign born, and 23% of the county’s foreign-born population is in poverty.
  • 22% of the county’s households in poverty are single-parent households, and 42% of the county’s single-parent households are in poverty.

And while our official poverty statistics have declined, they haven’t returned to pre-recession levels.

“At the same time, rising costs for health care, education and housing are putting a squeeze on families in poverty.


So what can we do? Well first off, we can stop doing things that perpetuate poverty. Last year Congress passed a monstrous tax bill that repealed the estate tax, blew giant loopholes in our business tax code and generally discarded any sense of fiscal responsibility or fairness. One analysis had the top 1 percent getting 83 percent of the gains while in the bill’s final year, it raised taxes on 53 percent of Americans.


“Secondly, we can put our money where it does the most good. At Multnomah County, we are pushing hard to move away from funding jail beds and emergency medical services, and instead focusing on prevention, stability and housing. By focusing on wraparound services, whether its in our SUN Schools, our mental health system or in the thousands of supportive housing units across the county, keeping people stable and secure saves money and helps them build their way to self sufficiency. In October, the city of Portland and Multnomah County committed to doubling the number of supportive housing units in our community, creating 2,000 more over the next ten years.


“Racism can be both a root cause and exacerbate experiences of poverty for communities of color. That’s why we’ve prioritized investing in a broad range of solutions that meet communities where they are with strategies that best work for them -- culturally specific services in our youth services, domestic violence, aging and community health worker training. Creating an atmosphere of safety, trust and belonging is critical to effectively doing our work to address poverty.”


“Finally, and most importantly, we can change the conversation. We shouldn’t assume that poverty is normal, that homelessness is intractable and there is no hope for change. We have overcome big challenges in the past and we can build a better society that’s more fair and just.”


Deborah concluded: “I know that throughout Multnomah County there are thousands of people who want to do the right thing. They want to help. They just need to be asked. Our Community Health Improvement Plan is a prime of example of partnering with our community members in creating a plan for our collective success

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