Poverty in Marion and Polk Counties (2017)

Highlights of Salem City Club program of March 17, 2017Notes by Sally Hollemon

Jimmy Jones, Ph.D., director of the Arches Project of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, conducted in-depth interviews with members of over 1000 households (some were individuals, some were couples or families) living in the Salem area (Polk and Marion Counties) without housing. Dr. Jones said that HUD requires funds to go to the people who have the most need, but it can be difficult to find them and difficult to engage them and keep them engaged. His 50-question interviews were intended to find out the problems that homeless people are trying to deal with; the information will help in obtaining future funding.

Dr. Jones’ survey found that we have a large homeless problem (the count includes people in shelters): 43.4% of our homeless have high needs; they are chronically homeless with a disabling condition (health, substance abuse, and/or mental health issue). 39% have felony convictions (probably related to substance abuse). 49% have no income; 51% have some income, usually a disability check, but their income is generally too low to afford an apartment without using 80% of their income. Families with children are 23% of the homeless in our area.

Oregon has the second largest homeless rate in the U.S. Salem has about 500 high-need homeless, but Shangri-La has only twenty apartments. Our high-need population is so large because we haven’t applied for available money to deal with their issues. Marion County currently receives only a third as much funding as the Eugene area receives, so our county needs to go after sources of funding.

Ron Hayes, director of the Community Resource Trust, is the lead person on the development of 180 low-income homes in north Salem. He said that Marion County has 57,000 people below the U.S. poverty line; 28% of them are children. Part of the problem is that wages are lower in Marion County than in other parts of the state; the median income in our county is about $4,000 less than for the state as a whole. Families who rent have an average income of $29,000, while families that can afford to own their homes have an average income of $61,000.

A complication is that Marion County has a 1% apartment vacancy rate. To allow for the usual amount of movings, the vacancy rate would have to be 4%. Our too-low vacancy rate encourages apartment owners to raise rents and to choose the best tenants, so it’s hard for homeless people to qualify for an apartment. Mr. Hayes’ recommendation is to help the people in the middle by subsidizing affordable, market-rate housing so that people don’t fall into homelessness.

United Way did a study called ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) that showed that Oregon needs at least 165,000 affordable housing units to meet the needs of the growing number of individuals and families who are working at above poverty-level jobs (often in the service sector) which do not pay enough for families to afford the basic necessities of housing, food, child care, health care, and transportation. Marion County needs 16,000 affordable units. We would need to build 600 units per year here in order to meet the need within twenty years. We’re building only 180 units at a cost per unit of $141,000. (The cost is higher in Eugene and Portland.) At this rate, there won’t be enough money made available to solve the homeless problem.

Mr. Hayes showed part of a short video taken in Russia where two men and a large 3-D printer built a small house for $10,000. The printer layered coils of polymer concrete to build walls (similar to how potters build a vessel without using a potter’s wheel). Mr. Hayes emphasized that we need creative solutions if we are to solve our homeless problem.

Q&A: Could mobile homes be used for homeless people? Mr. Hayes said mobile home parks are a possible element that should be looked at, but there are zoning and density issues. Some parks have gone out of business and others are in bad shape with old trailers and RVs. One park behind Home Depot is used by low-income people and is full. Salem doesn’t allow ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units, also known as granny flats, in-law units, secondary dwelling units) but Keizer does allow them.

Judge Pamela Abernathy Speaks on Poverty (September 2008)

Judge Pamela Abernethy spoke on Working Together to Break the Cycle of Abuse and Neglect. She said that citizens feel that poverty is too complex and we don’t know what to do to end it. Or we feel that poverty is an individual problem caused by bad choices and needs an individual, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps solution.

Judge Abernethy reframed the issue: Poverty is a failure to be able to provide for oneself and one’s family due to lack of education, mental illness, and/or drug abuse.

Scientific study has shown that when children are abused or neglected, brain damage occurs (what Judge Abernethy called “funny brains”) that lasts for life. Children who are abused or neglected have educational problems, higher likelihood of mental illness and drug abuse, and heightened likelihood of criminal activity.

Parents who are high on meth for days, then crash and sleep for days are neglecting their children. The children develop “funny brains.” Parents who have to work three jobs usually have to leave their children with the least skillful caregiver, often an older child; these children also show signs of neglect by developing “funny brains.”

As a society we try the latest new thing (silver bullet), and, when the grant money runs out, the program ends and we’re back to cynicism that the government can’t do anything.

Judge Abernethy suggested that we think of the situation as a public health issue that can affect the whole society.

  • We need complex interactions at each level to deal with all of the issues involved. When, for example, there are many children in a classroom with “funny brains,” these kids will take all of the teacher’s time, and the other students will suffer.
  • It’s a good return on investment because adults with “funny brains” will lack money so won’t be able to afford to buy a car, for example, which affects the community’s economics.
  • Investing in solutions is the right thing to do. When a youngster has been neglected, removed from their home, been in several foster homes, their eyes are old and sad. Teenage girls get pregnant because they need something for themselves, some validation.

Judge Abernethy uses a variety of approaches to help the young people who appear in her court.

A person arrested on a misdemeanor who has a child under the age of 5 is given the opportunity to volunteer for Project BOND. Under that program the parent receives parenting classes at Family Building Blocks (FBB) and her child is placed in a therapy classroom at FBB. One of the parenting skills taught to mothers at FBB is how to interact with her child. Judge Abernethy said that girls who weren’t played with as children don’t know how to play with their kids. Postpartum depression as well as drug abuse can also cause a mother’s lack of responsiveness to her child.

Judge Abernethy began TOT (Ten on Tuesday) for pregnant girls. They come at 10 a.m. on Tuesdays to a class to help prepare them to become parents. To be poor, pregnant, and using drugs is a big weight for a young woman. Many have lost older kids, don’t have a supportive boyfriend, are illiterate. In spite of these obstacles, some of them manage make their lives work.

Reading for All is a program to buy books for young mothers to read to their toddlers. Reading fosters a relationship between parent and child and also, of course, helps prepare youngsters for school.

Reading Wranglers will be available in places where a parent has to go, such as the Self-Sufficiency Office, where kids wait with their mothers. Reading Wranglers are volunteers who will read to the kids while they wait.

Reach Out and Read is a program to put books into pediatric clinics so that mothers can read to their youngsters while waiting to see the doctor.

So, Judge Abernethy concluded, there are some good things happening.

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