LAST SPRING, despite the specter of an awful city budget gap, a grassroots campaign nurtured by Street Roots managed to not only fend off proposed cuts to programs for the poor but also win a huge promise for future funding.
The Facebook campaign was called "I Support the Portland Safety Net," and politicians and other local celebrities helped lift it into a position of effective prominence in city hall [Hall Monitor, March 29, 2012]. (It also helped that then-Mayor Sam Adams was wheeling and dealing for a schools bailout and was looking for votes from some of those politicians, like Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz.)
But all that—compared to this year's financial headwind—was nothing. Faced with a $25 million deficit, a desperate city council is getting ready to devour the magic budget rabbit that Adams kept up his sleeve and burn its bones to keep warm.
And that means none of last year's promises to protect cash for the needy—programs for hundreds of clients who might, no exaggeration, die without them—should be considered sacrosanct.
Which is why, on Friday, March 15, the safety net campaign was rebranded in hopes of making a similar splash. This year's reboot is called "We Are the Safety Net"—words that organizers want you to write on your hand, and then take a picture to show the world.
The coalition is hoping to fend off as much as $2.3 million in newly proposed housing cuts to programs that include the Clark Center men's shelter, cold-weather temporary shelters for women and families, and rent-assistance checks.
The campaign comes as the city contemplates closing fire stations, laying off cops, easing up on parks maintenance, and very likely asking workers throughout its bureaus to forgo future pay hikes.
So far, in the face of those choices, only the Clark Center, with its nearly $500,000 subsidy has received a faint whisper of reprieve.
That's partly because the center is so vital. Closing it would immediately send 90 men to the street and create a difficult ripple for shelter waiting times citywide. But it's also because it's found friends in high places. It's run by Transition Projects, which is run, in turn, by Doreen Binder, who was ready to serve as treasurer for Police Chief Mike Reese's almost-maybe-probably mayoral campaign in late 2011.
And Binder has also found a high-profile city hall lobbyist in the Portland Business Alliance (PBA). The PBA's Clean and Safe arm, run by former Assistant Police Chief Lynnae Berg, has written the council a letter on behalf of the center.
"Transition Projects has been an excellent steward of city dollars spent on the Clark Center," the letter says.
But few other providers can muster that firepower. "We Are the Safety Net" understands that. That's why they've returned.
"We realize the city has a lot of hard choices," says Israel Bayer, Street Roots' director. "We also know that there's no more important issue facing our city today than the social safety net.... Everybody deserves housing."
He's right. Raise your hand. And show it to city hall.