Imagine this …

After a long day at work you come home to a house that is dark and cold.  The dinner you serve your children is limited to whatever doesn’t need to be refrigerated or cooked.  There’s no extra money for takeout, so you’re grateful for the warm lunch they get at school five days a week.  And thank goodness they were able to get their homework done before it got dark.  Readying the kids for bed means a speedy cold bath, many layers of warm clothing, all the blankets you can find, and a quick story off the top of your head since there is no light to read by.  You gather the laundry and make plans to tote as much as you can to the Laundromat on the weekend.  The kids have been great about keeping their clothes clean for as long as possible, but it’s time.  Luckily, you never got rid of that old windup alarm clock, which will wake you in a few hours to start this day all over again.  If you sleep at all.  You think about the toll this situation is taking on your family.  You never expected to find yourself unable to pay your utilities.  You’ve taken a second job, but it’s just not enough.  You struggle to find a way back to normal.  It is dark.  Your children are cold.  You need help.

As temperatures drop and days become shorter, too many families in our community are struggling to stay safe and warm in their homes.  For those living on low or fixed incomes, an increase in utilities during the winter months can overwhelm household budgets.  Tough choices must be made.  Pay the heat bill or pay the rent.  Keep the lights on or put food on the table. 

Hundreds of families – nearly 4,000 calls – came through our energy assistance line last week from those who are at risk of having their power shut off or who cannot afford to have service resumed.  Families are in need of help to bridge the gap and they are turning to Community Action.  We know that when we can lend a hand, families are able to overcome temporary challenges.  We know that if we can help families with their utility bills, their financial crisis is far less likely to escalate and put them at risk of homelessness.  We know that the right help at the right time makes a difference.  Last year, this was true for 8,387 households in Washington County.  This was true for families in your community.

Banks: 84 families
Beaverton: 3,019 families

Cornelius
: 30 families
Forest Grove
: 590 families
Gaston: 50 families
Hillsboro: 2,081 families
North Plains
: 64 families
Sherwood: 68 families
Tigard
: 923 families
Tualatin
: 335 families
Remaining Washington County
: 1,034 families

Fortunately, they found the support they needed at Community Action.  Funding from an array of partners, including local governments, faith organizations, businesses, and generous donors made it possible for these families to come home to a warm home.  A home where the things we often take for granted are now possible again.  A hot meal, clean clothes, a warm shower, a light to read by…  The knowledge that tomorrow you will have these things again because Community Action offered you the hope and the help you needed to get back on your feet.

With only $7,000 in hand, Community Action has to turn away most Washington County families needing rental assistance

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BEAVERTON — At Community Action, everyone dreads coming to work on the 8th of each month. That’s the day eviction notices go out, the day hundreds of people call the Washington County nonprofit, asking for help.

On Friday, all 40 of the agency’s voicemail boxes filled up within minutes. At 8:30 a.m., Wendy Polanco  started calling people back. “I’m sorry,” she had to say, we can’t help.

Money for the rental assistance program has always lagged behind demand. Even last year, when the United Way and recession-conscious churches and philanthropists regularly sent in money, Community Action helped only about 125 families a month.

But July is the worst month the non-profit has ever seen. Donations have ebbed. Federal funds — the agency’s most stable revenue stream — still haven’t showed up. And a stop-gap contribution from Washington County hasn’t been processed. On Friday, Polanco and her co-workers had only $7,000 to dole out, enough money to help about 14 families.

In their messages, callers cry. They sound so stressed, they stumble in spelling their own last names. They give too many or too few digits for a phone number. Children scream in the background.

"Please call me," one woman said. "I hope you’ll call me. I don’t want to be on the street. I’m scared. Just call me."

On the phone with the first of the nearly 300 families the non-profit turned down Friday morning, Polanco frowned.

"You come into work like this," Polanco said, sitting straight up, a hint of pride on her face. "But after you start making calls, you feel like ughhh," she said, slumping over her desk.

This month, donors earmarked the money for Tigard or Forest Grove-area residents. But most of the callers lived in Hillsboro or Beaverton. After 20 calls, Polanco had found only one Tigard resident. Call after call, she said the same thing.

"We didn’t receive money for those areas this month." Her voice softened. "OK, have a good day."

She hung up the phone, took off her glasses and wiped tears from her eyes. As she dialed the next number, she sighed then said, “Can they have a good day when I’m telling them no? When I don’t have anywhere else to tell them to go?”

If delivering bad news wasn’t bad enough, Polanco has her own worries. Seasonal grant money pays for Polanco’s position, so she and another coworker have been laid off for the summer. They’re both single mothers. Friday was their last day of regular work.

32,000 calls for help each year

Community Action started the emergency rent assistance program in the 1980s. Back then, program manager Judy Schilling  said, few people called for assistance. Staff had to search for people to help. Those who received the vouchers were usually in a once-in-a-lifetime emergency situation.

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In the last year, Community Action has fielded more than 32,000 calls from people needing rent help. Since the recession began, the people who call have generally been in crisis mode for a while, Schilling said. Most were laid off a year or more ago. They’ve exhausted savings and family’s generosity.

Calls have gone up across the metro area, social service workers say. The 20 agencies that offer rent help in Multnomah County all receive fairly stable money from the Housing Authority’s Short Term Rent Assistance program, which draws money from the county and city governments.

Community Action is the only group that gives out rental assistance in Washington County. If a person calls 2-1-1 — Oregon’s community services information line — the county or a church in Washington County, they are sent to Community Action.

The agency doesn’t take requests until the 8th. Staff sets up a voicemail instructing people to call back on the 8th at 8 a.m. It’s first-come, first-served. If you call at 8:01, you’re already too late. If you’ve received rent assistance in the last two years, you don’t qualify.

Polanco and her coworkers spend the next four hours calling people back. If a caller was first in line — and this month, a Tigard or Forest Grove area resident — Polanco set up an in-person interview that afternoon.

"This is the easy part," Polanco said as interviews started. "Now we get to help people."

Ashley Beard, 19, worked at Grocery Outlet for three years before the company laid her off in April. She balanced her 8-month-old son, Conner, on her knee as she filled out qualifying papers. She’s on unemployment, but still scraping by, she said.

As Beard left, Polanco beamed.

"It’s over," she said. Her smile waned. "For this month, anyway."

-Casey Parks
The Oregonian

New study reports that job growth recovery could be a decade away.

Hiring may be slowing after months of healthy job gains that helped drive economic growth.

Lisa Brown, Director of Development & Community Relations at Community Action expresses the importance of supporting local safety net services during uncertain economic times.

A new study from NBER finds that public programs, like Community Action, keep one in six Americans out of poverty.

A new study from NBER finds that public programs, like Community Action, keep one in six Americans out of poverty.

A Senate committee of lawmakers approved a new program to assist low-income families in paying their electric bills on Monday afternoon, coming at a cost of 35 cents each month for residential ratepayers.

Electric companies and Oregon Community Power would be required with the new program to increase their contribution by $5 million each year if one or more of certain negative economic conditions were met. The conditions include an unemployment rate above 10 percent for over six months of a twelve-month period, a 12 percent increase in the poverty rate and a 20 percent increase in the rates of those receiving supplemental nutritional assistance, among others.

In Oregon, we care about our neighbors. We’ve demonstrated this through the communities we’ve built. We work together to see families through crises. We look after kids when their families can’t. We help seniors with rides and meals so they can live in their own homes longer. We do this and more because we know that by building the systems to do these things, we build the foundations for healthy communities and a strong middle class.

Currently, that foundation is threatened, and Oregonians are right to be deeply concerned. Recent public hearings on the state budget have been dominated by public outrage about a list of budget cuts that are too long and too deep. These cuts will hurt all of us, and all of our communities. We’ll be less resilient in the face of the challenges posed by everyday life.

The list includes deep cuts to the already bare-bones support we provide to our lowest-income families; family support for children with developmental disabilities; reductions in services to individuals leaving domestic violence; and cuts to the systems that help ensure our seniors receive quality care and are given a chance to stay in their homes rather than move into nursing home facilities.

We have other options.  Read more…

As a journalist, I feel there has never been a more critical time for reporting on poverty and its byproducts of homelessness and despair.

-Kevin Fagan
San Francisco Chronicle

If this week’s revenue forecast promises any increase in state funding, the first priorities must be human services.

If a child falls through a gaping hole in Oregon’s safety net, and no one sees him, does he make a sound?

It’s a question worth pondering as Gov. John Kitzhaber and legislators prepare this week for the most important revenue forecast in Oregon history. This state is full of needs. School districts are closing buildings and laying off teachers. Doctors, dentists and mental health providers are confronting drastic cuts to reimbursement rates. Virtually every state-funded public service is under pressure.

But nothing is as dire, as shortsighted, as the cuts targeted at vulnerable children and families. Oregon may impose an 18-month lifetime limit to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The federal policy is 60 months. If Oregon erases all support after just 18 months, it would have the nation’s shortest time limit.

That would push more children and families into homelessness and force more desperate parents to give up custody, shoveling more kids into the costly foster care system.

And that’s only one hole that would open in the safety net. Here’s another: Lawmakers are considering a cut in employment supports — education, training and work experience — for parents receiving TANF support. That would cost more than 12,000 parents the support they need to find and hold jobs and leave welfare behind.

And here’s another: The state would eliminate support services for more than 1,100 families who have children with developmental disabilities. The program provides respite care, behavior consulting and one-time purchases of needed equipment. These grants help kids stay in their homes and keep families together.

More than two dozen health and human services programs for children, the disabled and the elderly face significant cuts in the next state budget. We’re under no illusions that this week’s revenue forecast will come in high enough to protect them all. Our point is that looking across the proposed budget, these are the cuts that strike us as the most damaging and unwise.

In many cases, the costs would be much greater than the savings. Cutting TANF’s lifetime limit to 18 months will save less than $12 million in the next biennium. The job supports cost about $66 million. Buying back grants to the 1,100 families with disabled kids would cost less than $4 million. It’s hard to imagine public money better spent.

We know the pressure that will fall on lawmakers and the governor if the state economist on Thursday tells them they have another $100 million, $200 million or more to spend. The loudest voices will belong to the powerful K-12 school lobby. Health care crime and adult corrections have strong advocates, too.

All those services are important, but this is a moment that elected officials must tend to the safety net. Let the school districts make do with the $5.7 billion budget lawmakers already have approved. Let the strong, well-heeled organizations that represent doctors and hospitals come forward with a health provider tax that allows Oregon to tap hundreds of millions of dollars in federal matching funds.

Any new revenue should go first for those vulnerable kids, the handicapped and lonely seniors teetering over Oregon’s safety net. That includes the troubled teens served by the Youth Authority, which faces the brunt of the public-safety cuts because lawmakers can’t bring themselves to reduce sentences on adult inmates.

All those kids only seem to plunge silently through the tears in Oregon’s safety net. If this state allows them to fall, some day, some how, we will hear from them. And all of us will feel the impact.

Half in Ten & Coalition on Human Needs have created Road to Shared Prosperityon YouTube which highlights the important roles Head Start and block grants have played in the lives of individuals throughout the country.

Let us know the value these services provide to your family or share your story on the site.

Community Services Block GrantFY 09-10 Annual Report