During her first State of the City address Monday, Portland Mayor Kate Snyder assured residents that she, the City Council and city staff are all working collaboratively to respond to the ongoing challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, while also making progress on the council’s goals to increase affordable housing and address homelessness.

Snyder spent most of her nearly 40-minute address, which is required under the city charter, looking back at the challenges and accomplishments of her first year in office. And she was careful to dole out praise to city staff and her fellow councilors.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Snyder predicted another challenging year ahead and urged everyone to work together and avoid the “one-sided lobs” on social media that “too often feels like stabs versus reaches across a real or perceived ideological divide.”

“Uncertainty about so many things has created a baseline of stress for so many, probably for all of us,” Snyder said. “I urge us to do the best we can as a community to be kind, to be creative, to be innovative and to be persistent as we make our way through to the other side of COVID-19 and the accompanying impacts to education, employment, the economy and our collective and individual well-being.”

Snyder also acknowledged frustration in the community about the ways the council receives and responds to public input, highlighting opportunities to make changes. One avenue is the council’s rule-making process later this year. Another is through the charter commission, which will be elected in June. She also alluded to an effort to reinvigorate the Portland Alliance of Neighborhoods, a panel of representatives from each neighborhood.

“I recognize we have work to do regarding public engagement that feels meaningful and inclusive for all Portland citizens,” she said.

As expected, Snyder did not announce any specific policy proposals for her next year in office. She emphasized the role council committees have played in furthering its goals.

She noted that the council set four major goals at the beginning of the year, including increasing safe and affordable housing, reducing homelessness, improving public transportation and addressing the “high property tax burden in Portland.”

She said this was the first time in 25 years that neither the city nor school budgets included a property tax increase.

But Snyder also noted the life-changing, trajectory-altering pandemic, which shuttered businesses, displaced workers and continues to disrupt the daily rhythms of life. And she acknowledged the efforts of everyone, including public health workers, Gov. Janet Mills and Dr. Nirav Shah, the director of the state Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I am daily grateful to live in a state where science prevails and leadership is transparent, accessible and rational,” she said.

City leaders, she said, worked with business owners and associations like the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce, Portland Downtown and Portland Buy Local to find ways for people to support local businesses and protect public health. That included street closures, which she said allowed 17 retail businesses to expand onto sidewalks and streets, and 141 food providers to expand into streets, sidewalks, parking spots, public parks and private property.

The city also provided financial help to renters and grants to local businesses.

Snyder also noted that 890 units of housing are in the pipeline to be created or renovated in the coming years.

She also reiterated the city’s commitment to address systemic racism and to tackle the city’s homelessness problems.

As protests in response to the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis swept the country and came to Portland, Snyder and councilors created a Racial Equity Steering Committee to issue recommendations to the city. Councilors also funded an investigation into the police department’s response to protests in early June, when officers used pepper spray and arrested more than two dozen people as protests stretched late into the night and some protesters threw objects and shot fireworks at officers.

The city also expects to host a series of community conversations about race and will consider public art requests that stress racial equity.

“Our country’s critical obligation to address systems that promote and advance racial inequities is on all of us,” she said.

Snyder also noted that the city has stepped up its efforts to provide services to people experiencing homelessness in the city, as other services have been lost.

“As we all know, not all who experience homelessness seek shelter,” she said. “And, we also know that some local support for people experiencing homelessness or needing support has been suspended, leaving gaps in services and spaces available – especially during the daytime.”

Though she didn’t mention them by name, the nonprofit social service agency Preble Street closed its day room and soup kitchen in response to the pandemic. They hope to convert the Resource Center into a 24-hour shelter and will continue to deliver food made in its kitchen to area shelters and other drop-off points in the community. And the recent budget added money to add portable toilets in Deering Oaks and in Bayside, which was one demand by those at a homeless encampment outside City Hall this summer.

She said the Oxford Street Shelter, which has been at half capacity and not accepting new clients, has served an average of 64 people a night. The Portland Expo, which was converted into a temporary shelter, has served an average of 39 people. And the city’s Family Shelter has a recent nightly average of 153 people.

An additional 93 families and another 215 homeless single adults have been staying at area hotels, she said.

Snyder suggested the work on the new homeless services center on Riverside Street would not be able to go forward without some regional or state assistance.

But despite the city’s best efforts, Snyder said, there will always people who don’t engage with services.

“The sleep-out demonstration brought to the fore so many issues of critical concern, and while the encampment dispersed after a couple of weeks, the issues and lessons are top of mind for the council and city staff as we continue our uninterrupted services to meet needs,” Snyder said, of the City Hall encampment.

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