Keny-Guyer and Stark Plan to Fight Cuts to Homeless Program

In an ironic move, Gov. Kate Brown recommended the ending of a small but efficient program to draw down federal funds to get homeless, disabled people into housing, and target investments in the social determinants of health -- the stated goal of the Medicaid waiver pending before the federal government.

A bipartisan pair of lawmakers plans to fight to keep a critical program for getting disabled, homeless people into housing after the initiative was defunded in the governor’s proposed budget, released earlier this month.

The program, known as general assistance, pays for homeless people with health disabilities to get into housing while they await approval for federal disability payments. Once approved, the federal government pays the state retroactively for fronting the money.

“We’ve already made the initial investment. No way we can just drop that,” said Rep. Duane Stark, of Grants Pass, the ranking Republican on the House Human Services Committee. “The ongoing investment is minimal in my opinion and worth every penny of it.”

According to legislative fiscal officer Ken Rocco, the budgets presented by state agencies show a $1.8 billion hole for the 2017-2019 budget cycle, which Gov. Kate Brown has proposed filling with about $900 million in tax increases and $900 million in cuts, including this program for the homeless.

The state had a budget of $1.6 million getting General Assistance up-and-running after it was authorized by the Legislature in March. Cutting it would save $2.3 million while walking away from about $1.5 million in federal recoupments.

“It’s a prevention strategy, making it so people do not go further downhill,” said Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland. She chairs the Human Services Committee, and both she and Stark sit on the budget subcommittee overseeing the Department of Human Services, which runs the general assistance program. “I’m passionate about this program, and I’d like to get it expanded to help people stay in housing. I will definitely advocate strongly for it.”

Brown’s decision to include it in the list of cuts was puzzling and ironic, given its relatively low dollar cost, its return on investment and the direction that both she and her predecessor, Gov. John Kitzhaber, have sought to lead the health and social services programs -- toward upstream investments in the social determinants of health, which will slow healthcare spending over the long run while improving the quality of life for the state’s neediest residents.

The general assistance program provides a concrete method for the state to offer one of the key social determinants of health -- stable housing. Oregon is trying to get the federal government to renew its Medicaid waiver by promising to invest precisely in these upstream areas that can provide a better quality of life while preventing the need for high-cost medical care.

This program was specifically targeted at people on the Oregon Health Plan who are homeless, often because of a medical condition like mental illness.

“It’s really unfortunate that we didn’t have more time to show that it’ll work,” said Janet Merrill, the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Oregon. “When people get approved for disability, the system gets paid back.”

The state is still waiting to get paid back for the cases where it’s fronted money, but in some circumstances, the state and the individuals received help without any state assistance other than the footwork of DHS caseworkers.

Merrill said social workers checking on people on the streets to see if the qualify have found a number of homeless individuals unaware they had already been approved for Supplemental Security Income, disability payments or veteran’s benefits. “SSI had no place to send the check,” she added.

The program has housed 23 people since it was established this summer, including six in Portland. But its impact is reaching many rural corners of the state, from John Day to Brookings, and seven individuals in Stark’s Rogue Valley.

Stark was less pessimistic than Merrill about the program’s future, noting that the Legislature -- not the governor -- gets to determine the budget, which the executive branch then carries out.

“It’s somewhat premature to get too worked up by the governor’s budget,” he said. “That starts a conversation, but we work from the [legislative] co-chairs’ budget.”

He said setting the human services’ budget was a bipartisan process, and he had a good working relationship with Rep. Nancy Nathanson, D-Eugene, the likely budget co-chair from the House in 2017. “I fully expect to have input,” he said.

John Mullin, a tireless advocate for low-income Oregonians, advocated for the reinstatement of the General Assistance program for the length of his ten-year tenure as the Oregon Law Center’s legislative advocate. His hard work paid off, winning the Legislature’s approval in his last year. Mullin is retiring at the end of 2016, and made one last plea to prevent defeat from being snatched from the jaws of victory.

“It services the poorest of the poor. These are people we see all about the state, who have no means of self-support,” Mullin said. “General Assistance not only helps the individual, it helps our community. … I’m confident that once the Legislature looks at these issues, they’ll see the need to continue this small but important General Assistance program.”

Chris can be reached at [email protected].

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