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Kotek Supports Bill to Help Homeless with Housing as They Await Federal Help

Many of the state’s homeless people have disabilities that make them eligible for federal Social Security Insurance, but they have nowhere to live while they await approval, causing their condition to worsen. The Human Services Committee plans to reintroduce legislation that would establish a state program to help bring these individuals indoors until federal funding kicks in.
December 18, 2015

The House Human Services Committee plans to reintroduce a bill that extends a helping hand to the state’s homeless population, particularly those with mental illness, assisting them with housing and incidental expenses while these individuals await federal aid.

The new bill will be a rehash of the failed House Bill 2194 from the 2015 session, which resurrects an old general assistance program that Oregon scrapped 10 years ago and retools it to put a focus on housing. The proposed program would be limited to 200 homeless individuals a month, who would receive a housing voucher worth as much as $600 and a small cash allowance of $30 to cover incidentals like toiletries that cannot be purchased with food stamps.

The Oregon Law Center’s John Mullin, the longtime advocate for general assistance, conceded winning approval for the program will be an uphill battle -- he’s been disappointed 10 years in a row -- but with concern for people with mental illness growing and the state’s homeless population on the rise, or at least palpably more visible in the largest cities, including Portland, Eugene and Salem, the atmosphere for passage may be the best in years.

“I would certainly [hope] that brings GA back into play,” said Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland. “ I have always thought it would [be] critically important for a few people at really critical times.”

House Speaker Tina Kotek’s office said the funding request will be on the list of proposals to help Oregonians most at need.

“The Speaker supports bringing this up again in 2016,” said Lindsey O’Brien, Kotek’s spokeswoman. “The general assistance program is one of the concrete things the state can do to help adults with disabilities meet their basic needs while they pursue federal benefits.”

Mullin said Washington state already has a similar program that was pared back but never completely eliminated during the Great Recession.

The upfront investment the state makes in these people can be recouped when they get approved for Social Security Disability Insurance, since the federal government awards them benefits retroactive to the date of application, and the state gets paid back first for the benefit it has provided.

Mullin argued that fixing one of the key social determinants of health -- housing stability -- would also yield dividends for the state’s coordinated care organizations, since people who would receive assistance also receive Medicaid, and would be less likely to end up in the hospital or the emergency room if they had a place to live.

“We’re focusing on the homeless population,” Mullin said. “We want to see how the pilot works and then come back and cover other people.”

He noted that people who receive assistance from the Department of Human Services in their application win approval 75 percent of the time.

Bob Joondeph, the director of Disability Rights Oregon, said the population targeted by this program are frequently those who have the fewest natural supports, as their condition has alienated them from their family. The qualifying disability is usually but not always a psychiatric one.

HB 2194 passed the Human Services Committee in April on a 6-3 vote, with the committee’s Democrats joined by Rep. Duane Stark, R-Central Point, who also serves as a Christian pastor.

Since the state can recoup federal money from people who are approved for assistance, the program would cost much less to sustain than to get started. But to help 200 people, the program had an upfront cost of $2.9 million a biennium, and the proposal got buried amid a host of other spending concerns in the Committee on Ways & Means.

With a 2016 bill applying only to the second year of the biennium, the general fund will likely be half that -- about $1.5 million, followed by about $1.9 million in the 2017-2019 biennium, since the program will only cost the state about $400,000 a year once it’s up-and-running and Oregon gets paid back by the federal government.

Stark and the Human Services chair, Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland, both sit on the budget subcommittee that oversees social service programs. Keny-Guyer was not able to respond to requests for comment by press time.

Chris can be reached at [email protected].