The City of Portland distributed $114 million in federal relief for the COVID-19 pandemic on July 22, with approximately 90 percent going directly to the community – and a focus on the city’s most vulnerable populations.
“I believe the proposal will help keep thousands of Portlanders in their homes, and assist struggling small businesses and nonprofits to stay afloat as we weather the pandemic and economic downturn,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said during a City Council meeting July 15, when three dozen people testified about the funding plan. “The proposal represents our shared values, and these investments will help keep Portlanders housed, fed and employed through the worst of the crisis.”
Like local governments across the world, the City of Portland has adapted quickly to respond to the staggering health and financial impacts of a global pandemic.
When confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States began increasing exponentially, it was clear that people needed immediate and significant resources to effectively address the public health crisis as well as the impacts on people’s livelihoods. The U.S. Congress recognized this need and created the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, known as CARES. Over $2 trillion was allocated to help address COVID-19 related public health issues and economic impacts.
The City of Portland received $114 million of CARES Act funds and on July 22, City Council approved a plan for distributing funding throughout the community. The funding package was approved in a 3-1 vote. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty voted against it, saying she appreciated the hard work that went into it, but didn’t believe the funding package maximized benefits to community members.
Initial requests from City commissioners, City bureaus, Multnomah County and community organizations for CARES Act funding totaled over $300 million – more than double the money available. To aid in the decision-making process on how funds could be allocated, the City created the PDX CARES Task Force, comprised of bureau directors and staff from the Council Offices and Office of Management and Finance.
The task force solicited feedback from 91 community based organizations that have established relationships with the people they serve. Information compiled by the Emergency Coordination Center was used to better understand the immediate and future needs of the city’s most vulnerable populations. Prosper Portland’s Economic Recovery Task Force made programmatic and policy recommendations related to providing financial support for struggling business and nonprofit communities.
Finally, City Bureau Directors engaged with their leadership teams and community partners and provided over 200 recommendations about how to support the community, guide the public’s health response and increase operational resilience.
Dr. Markisha Smith, Director of the Office of Equity and Human Rights, also took a leadership role in the process by guiding the City to center on equity considerations. Her team developed a COVID-19 Equity Toolkit to help facilitate decision-making around funding priorities. In late May Portland City Council adopted a resolution requiring COVID-19 relief measures be consistent with the toolkit. Throughout this process, one thing was abundantly clear: Black people, Indigenous people and people of color were identified as being the most impacted and needed the most support.
“Embedding equity from the start of the City’s response to COVID-19 has allowed us to remove barriers for currently and historically oppressed Portlanders,” said Smith. “We have much more work to do to lead systemic change, but the lessons learned and actions taken during the crisis will help us institutionalize equity citywide with a greater sense of urgency.”
Due to the nature of the COVID-19 crisis, some expenditures needed to be made prior to the Council’s July 22 action. Early expenses included public hygiene stations, temporary Outdoor Emergency Shelters for those experiencing homelessness and community requests for supplies. So many requests were received that during the week of March 23, the City and Multnomah County created the Joint Volunteer Information Center to coordinate a regional response to COVID-19. They helped distribute supplies throughout the community, including 6,000 procedural masks, 5,300 non-latex gloves, 310,000 diapers and 2,245 bottles of hand soap.
From the onset of the pandemic, the City’s highest priority was meeting the needs of struggling Portlanders. To date, the City has donated 55,967 meals and food boxes through the food security program. The City is also slated to distribute $1 million in the form of PDX CARES gift cards to community members in need of groceries and basic supplies adding to the $200K that has been distributed at the start of the pandemic.
“So far we’ve supported underserved communities through our food security program,” said Giyen Kim, Strategic Projects Manager.
“I’m really proud that we’ve been able to build on the success of programs like the Lunch + Play program and culturally specific food boxes. CARES Act funding has allowed us to supply 42,164 meals to youth, and for some youth that meal might be the only meal they have all day.”
Initial notification that the City was slated to receive $114 million to address the COVID-19 pandemic was received by City leaders with both gratitude and relief. Staff quickly realized that the funds wouldn’t come close to addressing all of Portland’s needs.
“We realize that these funds are not enough to serve the staggering needs of our community, but I believe we will pull through this crisis by working together,” Wheeler said during the work session.
Portlanders have worked together through the pandemic since the beginning of March. Stories about people helping others surfaced almost instantaneously. From the call for donations of personal protective equipment to the 7 p.m. nightly cheer for frontline workers, the Portland community stepped up to help one another in a variety of ways. The hashtag #WeGotThisPDX is still being used to share stories of food donations, pleas to stay home and continue wearing masks, ways to safely enjoy the outdoors and more. Actions such as these certainly help boost morale during challenging times, but it’s been made very clear that the community needs financial support.
During the July 22 vote, Wheeler said he was very proud of the fact that days after the City declared a State of Emergency, resources were sent directly to households for rent support as well as key household expenditures, but reiterated that the funds would not address all of Portland’s needs.
“The funds we have here are not sufficient.
"We’re not solving the problems. This is truly emergency support that will get us through this phase of the COVID-19 crisis, but this can’t be the end,” Wheeler said. “Since we all acknowledge that this level of funding in and of itself is not sufficient, the next step for us is collective advocacy to our state and to our federal governments for both legislative and financial support for renters and others who are struggling economically during this crisis. There is an opportunity for all of us on the Portland City Council to come together and help push for and lead that advocacy, and I look forward to doing that collectively as a unified team.”