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Jessie Burke (L) and Shannon Singleton (R) (Photos by Will Corwin and Andie Petkus)
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 04 April 2024

(Part 1 of 2)

Portland voters may be surprised by a shorter ballot for the May 21 primary elections. What they won’t find is any information about mayoral or city council candidates: The voter-approved change to city charter includes ranked-choice voting, which means these candidates will only appear on the November general election ballot.

But there are still important decisions to be made this May. As the city struggles with resources for drug addiction and homelessness, county leadership is critical. And there is an open seat for District 2, which includes most of North and Northeast Portland.

Five candidates are vying for the spot previously held by Susheela Jayapal, who resigned from office in November to focus on running for Oregon's 3rd Congressional District. Jesse Beason is currently serving as interim commissioner in Jayapal’s place.

The candidates include former Portland Mayor Sam Adams, hotel owner and Equity Development Lab cofounder Jessie Burke, former executive director of JOIN and leader of Oregon's Racial Justice Council Shannon Singleton, political data director Nicholas Hara and Multnomah County Department of County Human Services Equity and Inclusion Manager Carlos Richard.

Ballots will be mailed to in-state voters on May 1.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. 

JESSIE BURKE

jessieburke.com

Jessie Burke (Photo/Will Corwin)What would you do to improve equity for Black Portlanders?

The ways in which I believe I can help improve equity for Black Portlanders is to navigate the system with the Black community, and then repair or fight systems that limit equity for Black Portlanders. Most people that I work with will say that I am relentless on these issues, and I never stop until it is resolved. Standing side-by-side with the community, witnessing the inequities of the Black experience, and using my privileges and position to fix what is broken, is how I have been able to, and will continue to, best improve equity for Black Portlanders. It is slow, tedious work because it is untangling generations of intentionally stifling opportunities for equity. But I know it will be easier for each person that comes after, and the organization or person who was implementing the unfair practices, my hope is there is a lifelong lesson for them too. And the ripples I hope will last forever.

 

What is your proposal for tackling the issue of drug use and drug addiction in your district?

First and foremost, we must stop allowing public use of illicit drugs, but also stop allowing public highs from illicit drugs. We have made it too easy, and normalized addiction to a level that has created a crisis that is spreading like wildfire. This normalization is resulting in more and more people dabbling in these dangerous drugs.

We need sobering centers where people must be taken when they are high. This used to exist when the drug of choice was alcohol; it is not jail, it is a place to sober up. Removing people from public spaces serves as a low-level form of consequence, and while they’re there, we must offer detox and rehab opportunities.

We must re-fund the Rehab Ready dorm block in the Multnomah County Jail. This was a very effective program that directly connected people that were arrested, but ready for rehab, directly to rehab. All too often I hear those that have recovered from addiction say that "jail saved my life." And while it's not the solution for everyone, or even what we want to talk about, some people respond well to consequences, not only incentives. Which is why we must always maintain a balance.

 

What else do you see as the most urgent issues the county will face in the coming years and how do you plan to tackle them?

We must tackle creating a central database of available shelter beds that is public-facing.

This will allow anyone to find shelter easily. Hotels already use this type of software, and there is no reason we can't implement something similar for our shelter system. This is easily created and requires no private medical information.

We need to drastically increase the number of walk-in shelter beds. Currently most are reservation-based with two- to three-week waiting lists. No one plans to be homeless, and we need to create systems that are aligned with the reality of one's experience on the ground. This might include needing to think outside the box and partner with churches or others that have historically provided warming shelters, but transition to walk-in shelters as well.

We must make plans for 110% of our current homeless population in the next 12 months, not 50% in the next two years. The public is getting restless with failed promises, and we must start delivering on every line item we have budgeted.

 

What about your own personal and professional background inspired you to run for this position?

I grew up in the Washington D.C. area, and when I was six years old, my father was paralyzed. Four years later my sister was born with a severe birth defect. My parents moved into my aunt's basement, unable to afford rent, and my mother cleaned houses to make money. This was all before the Americans with Disabilities Act, so there were no disability payments. We lived off of food using WIC, and I watched as my parents struggled to navigate the system. I made it my mission to figure out the system for my parents. 

I decided to get my masters of Public Administration from PSU in hopes that maybe policy would help me better understand the system and help more people. After graduating, I went on to open my first business, Posies Bakery & Cafe, because I realized I could help more people simply because I chose to, and also create a space for my community to gather. My mother had gone back to school years before to be a pastry chef, and so I decided to open a bakery so she could work there.

Finally, my husband and I decided to try our hand at a boutique hotel in Old Town. My grandfather immigrated from China, and I thought it could be meaningful to try and help Portland's Chinatown be revitalized. 

SHANNON SINGLETON

www.shannonsingleton.org

shannon singleton introShannon Singleton (Photo/Andie Petkus)What would you do to improve equity for Black Portlanders? 

In my work, I center the voice of BIPOC people and will continue to do so as county commissioner. As Black Portlanders, we continue to be disproportionately homeless, in poverty, and in the jail system. I will work to ensure that budget investments are targeted to address these disparities, both through expansion of investments in culturally specific services, but also through holding dominant culture organizations accountable on moving forward their equity work and ensuring that Black people are able to access their services and funds without discrimination.

 

What is your proposal for tackling the issue of drug use and drug addiction in your district? 

We need to open a new sobering center, and we may need another. And it is important to address the lack of access to mental health care as well. Covid caused a lot of skilled healthcare professionals to leave the workforce. As a frontline worker at Cascadia I saw that in order to have the level of service we need, we will have to rethink the way the counties contract for health services. State Behavioral Health Director Clarke’s plan to expand beds across the state is encouraging. For too long, we’ve relied on the market to build these beds and the Medicaid reimbursement rate just doesn’t cut it, so beds don’t get built or staffed. 

Ideally, Multnomah County would lead a partnership to work with the Coordinated Care Organizations across the state and bring the Legislature a package of reforms that address this fundamental market issue. We can get a quick win by identifying projects with funding gaps that could be covered by (supportive housing services tax) dollars. We also need partnerships with health systems because SHS was intended to accelerate coordination rather than fix every issue. Local hospitals are hurting because we lack (short-stay, transitional) facilities in our community. By working directly with them, we can find innovative partnerships that allow us to move quickly and nimbly.

 

What else do you see as the most urgent issues the county will face in the coming years and how do you plan to tackle them? 

While the term for the district is two years, my top priorities are core to the county’s work: 

  • Housing: The cause of homelessness is complex, but the solution always involves stable, affordable housing. Our community is facing a crisis, and we need more of everything: housing, shelter, sober and low-barrier. 
  • Health care: Ensuring that Medicaid works for everyone is the best way to keep Multnomah County healthy and safe. Too many working families are deciding whether they pay the rent or pay the medical bills and the overdose crisis that fentanyl and meth are causing in our community needs urgent action. 
  • Safe communities: Nothing undermines community trust in the criminal justice system more than a wrongful conviction or a failed prosecution of someone who committed a crime. The county is at the center of a justice system that needs help, and we need to move quickly to rebuild the community’s trust. 

I know from experience that we can only get things done when we work together. As a county commissioner, I will be laser-focused on building a collaborative working relationship with the members of the board. That’s what sets me apart – my track record of working with people that I disagree with to make progress on challenging issues. I did that when we first made alternative shelters an acceptable use in our community, and I took that same approach on the Rose Quarter Improvement Project, brokering a deal among multiple community interests and positioning us to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal support. Our community deserves leaders who are going to get to work on day one and get things done – voters can trust that I’ll be that leader who is committed to bringing people together.

 

What about your own personal and professional background inspired you to run for this position? 

Being a Black woman on the front lines of social work for almost 30 years has inspired me to run.

I have spent a career working with elected officials and, at times, begging for the changes we need on the ground, I decided to run for a position that holds the power to actually make those changes myself. 

The matriarchs in my family also inspired me: my grandmother and great aunt who adopted young men displaced when mental health was de-institutionalized and thousands of people faced homelessness because the investments never came for the housing and community services needed for those who were forced out of those institutions; my mother who always made space for a family member or friend to stay at our house so they could "get back on their feet" while she worked two jobs to make ends meet; my other grandmother who walked picket lines to ensure that she was able to have safe (working conditions) and be well compensated with benefits to care for her seven children when she was a member of IBEW; and the women who were community leaders that I had the privilege to learn from, women who started the Kensington Welfare Rights Union which eventually became the Poor Peoples' Economic Human Rights Campaign, demanding that people are able to meet their basic human rights and needs. Additionally, my own personal experience of homelessness has fueled my passion for this work and is a core underpinning of why I decided to run to be the next Multnomah County commissioner for District 2.

 

Read Part 2 of these interviews here:

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