By Sarah Owens and Michael Livingston
|Joint Committee of the Second Special Session of 2020|
Civil unrest and a pandemic have begun to change how Oregon delivers homeless assistance.
Oregon has long mandated through ORS 458 that federal "anti-poverty" funding be distributed by formula through long established community action agencies (CAAs), who could then "sub-grant" funds to eligible non-profit agencies -- if there was enough to go around, and if the CAAs felt like it, with almost no accountability for outcomes, due in large part to the effective advocacy of Community Action Partnership of Oregon (CAPO), the CAAs' trade organization. See "State Seeks Accountability from Hless Service Providers." (24 February 2019.)
After decades under CAAs' monopoly control over resources, Oregon has "fallen far short in its goals associated with funding minority and culturally specific projects", particularly those serving BIPOC communities, according to the Oregon Commission on Black Affairs, a message resoundingly amplified by the voices of Black Lives Matter over the last couple of months. But for the pandemic and the need to push massive amounts of federal CARES Act funding out to hard hit communities, who knows when or whether change would have come.
But change has come. Last night, #orleg quietly passed HB 4304, which, among a lot of other things, "specifies that expenditures related to the Emergency Solutions Grant made available under the CARES Act can be awarded to various entities through a competitive or contract process." (See Section 41.) In other words, the change will allow the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department (OHCS) to depart from the requirement of ORS 458 to distribute more than $49M in federal CARES Act funding by formula.
In a letter to Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, co-chairs of the Joint Committee of the Second Special Session of 2020, OHCS Director Margaret Salazar described the need for change this way:
OHCS is seeking this change to address the unprecedented demands on our community services and homeless services systems. OHCS is slated to pass through more than $200 million directly, exclusively and non-competitively to Community Action Agencies over the course of just a handful of months. As context, for the 2019-21 biennium, base level of funding for homeless services is $50 million. To successfully and thoughtfully steward these resources, OHCS needs more seats at the table to help program these dollars; an all hands on deck approach will help deploy funds and meet the immediate and mid-term needs of our friends and neighbors. Our Community Action Agencies are working harder than ever to get funds out to Oregonians as fast as they can, but the existing statute and the existing program delivery system was not built for this. OHCS needs flexibility to address the crisis.This change will open the door to new strategies that will more intentionally serve communities of color, and build the capacity of organizations designed for and by people of color. The COVID-19 pandemic, recent uprising on the issue of systemic racism, and the inequitable impact of the health and economic crisis on communities of color, call for government to take intentional actions to undo systems that have, intentionally or not, led to barriers to access and disparate outcomes.
The first funds to be distributed with HB 4304's new flexibility will be $49.4M in Emergency Solution Grants (ESG). ESG can be used for shelter and homeless services and homeless prevention, like rent and utility assistance. OHCS plans to allocate $7M to local CAAs and the remaining $42.7M through "a competitive process that maintains regional distribution." Salazar's letter states that "the competitive process developed will include regional allocations that take into account the needs of communities across the state and ensure geographic reach of ESG funds", and a "set aside" for culturally specific organizations that will allow them to build capacity, expand services, and create stability in staffing.
A recent study by the Urban Institute found that, among existing federal rent assistance programs, the tenant-based Housing Choice Voucher and Emergency Solutions Grant programs were the best suited to deliver rent efficiently and equitably during the pandemic.
This blog may be updated with news of the community response to this major policy change.