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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Social Service Advocates Don't Want To Be Left Behind In Budget Debate

Chris Lehman
Northwest News Network

Oregon lawmakers will find out later this month how much money will be available to spend in the upcoming budget cycle. So right now, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the budget-writing process. Education, as usual, is in line for the biggest piece of the pie. But human service advocates say after years of budget turmoil, this year could be their chance to restore funding for Oregon’s social safety net.

If you want to see what the social safety net looks like, come to Deborah Favors’ new apartment. When she's feeling stressed, she likes to sit on the front steps and just listen to the wind chimes.

She says, "It takes you out of the 'ohmygosh this bill's gotta be paid' and you know, even if it's a five minute breather, you're able to rejuvenate yourself and come back up and get back on your trek."

This is the first place Favors has been able to hang wind chimes since March of 2008.

A downward spiral

That's when she went to prison. She served a two-year sentence for subjecting her three children to criminally unsafe living conditions. Favors says her life spiraled downhill when she plunged into a deep depression following the sudden death of her mother. She says the criminal charges were the wakeup call she needed. "I never ever want to live like that again. I don't ever want to subject my children to that again."

By the time Favors was free, two of her kids were adults and living on their own. She and her youngest daughter, who’s 15, bounced from shelter to shelter. Until she found a Marion County program that helps homeless people find a place to live.

That's how she ended up here: A modest two-bedroom apartment in the town of Stayton.

The state fund that helps put a roof over Deborah Favors' head is called the Emergency Housing Account. It's pretty much a classic example of a safety net program. It's designed to help keep people at risk of homelessness off the streets.

Too much demand

Funding for it has remained flat over the past eight years. And that's a problem, says Alison McIntosh with Neighborhood Partnerships, a non-profit group that advocates for low-income Oregonians.

"We know that the needs in our communities for this type of funding are huge."

McIntosh says the county level agencies that distribute the state housing money can't keep up with the demand for it. Not even close.

"After the third or fourth day of the month, they're often not able to help anybody else with rent assistance money," McIntosh explains. "They've run out and have to wait until next month.”

McIntosh's group is asking the state of Oregon for an additional $3 million over the next two years. That still wouldn’t cover everyone who qualifies. But it would be a big increase.

This is one of countless requests legislative budget writers have to sift through. Democratic state senator Alan Bates is helping to write the next human services budget. He says people are still feeling the effects of the down economy and "the demand for these services shoots up as people lose their job, lose their homes."

Bates says caseloads do appear to be leveling off somewhat. And a slowly improving economy is allowing budget-writers to take stock of where Oregon is after a bruising economic downturn. "We were pleasantly surprised that things hadn't fallen apart more than they have in the last six years."

But he says there's still no guarantee lawmakers can bring programs like the housing fund back to where they were in 2007.

Starting again

For Deborah Favors, she feels lucky to have a place to call home. And she says there's no way she'd be able to afford the rent on this place all by herself. She says she was overwhelmed with joy when she found out she'd been approved for housing assistance.

"It was a way for us to get back up on our feet again, and be able to hold our heads high again and truly be able to start again."

Favors is looking for a job as a cashier or a cook. But she knows her criminal record won't make that easy. In the meantime, she's just glad that she and her daughter don't have to live in a homeless shelter.

On the Web:

Emergency Housing Account - Oregon Housing and Community Services