Multnomah County, Oregon, is set to boost spending on gun violence prevention by millions of dollars in the 2022 fiscal year, making it one of the first localities in the country to use money from President Joe Biden’s signature coronavirus relief package to shore up anti-violence work.

On June 3, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners voted on how to divvy up the $157 million the county received as part of Biden’s American Rescue Plan. The commissioners unanimously earmarked $4.6 million of those funds for anti-violence work. Almost half of that amount will go toward addressing the root causes of community violence. The effort will include a seven-person Gun Violence Behavioral Health Response Team composed of clinicians and violence interrupters who will provide services, including therapeutic remedies, to young people affected by shootings and their families.

“Gun violence is a symptom of a larger illness, and in many cases that illness is poverty and it persists because of inequity,” said Raffaele Timarchi, policy adviser to Deborah Kafoury, the chair of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, who spearheaded the effort. “We see the American Rescue Plan funding as a way to address these issues that have been exacerbated by COVID.” 

Activists in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, and several other cities experiencing increases in shootings have pushed local leaders to steer portions of Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue package toward community-led gun violence prevention efforts. But so far Multnomah County, which includes Portland, appears to be the only local government to have actually done so.

Portland is on track to see more homicides in 2021 than any year in more than three decades. It’s also become a flashpoint in the debate over defunding police, and local leaders are scrambling to compensate for the dismantling of a controversial gun violence prevention police unit that faced criticism over its heavy-handed tactics. In April, the Portland City Council approved a $6 million investment in gun violence prevention.

But Portland is only one of eight cities in Multnomah County, and the area includes rural communities facing their own gun violence problems, including suicide. “We needed to develop a budget that could account for the problems on both sides,” Timarchi said.

Federal funding has increasingly been steered toward fighting community gun violence in recent years, particularly since the pandemic. Biden’s 2022 discretionary budget would set aside $2.1 billion for the Department of Justice to treat gun violence as a public health crisis, an increase of $232 million over the year before. Biden also proposed $5 billion for community gun violence prevention in the jobs plan that his administration released in March. 

In 2020, after then-President Donald Trump signed the first coronavirus relief bill — a $2 trillion package that also included aid for local governments — several cities and states set aside a portion of their allocation for gun violence prevention. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, earmarked $2.5 million from the Trump-era package to hire violence interrupters and provide youth mentorship opportunities. And Illinois directed $20 million toward anti-violence groups. 

The push to get state and local governments to use federal recovery funds on anti-violence initiatives was spearheaded by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a crime prevention and victim support organization that produced spending guidelines for local governments.

The funding for Multnomah County came through as commissioners were crafting the 2022 budget, and local officials and violence prevention advocates said they expect the windfall to be a game-changer.

“Things were looking pretty dire for the county’s budget until the American Rescue Plan money came into the conversation,” said Lisa Fujie Parks, associate program director of the Oakland-based Prevention Institute, an anti-violence organization that helped Multnomah County boost violence prevention funding. “It was a surprise, because we’re used to being told there’s no money for anything.” Parks said there has been more political will to increase funding for violence prevention programs since shootings began to spike last year. “I think there’s an awareness that things have gotten worse and could continue to get worse if we don’t do something,” she said. “And that something isn’t more policing.” The Black Lives Matter movement has also played a part, she noted, as it has brought “an emerging awakening and awareness that there’s an over-reliance on policing as an approach to dealing with violence.”