Community Action plans to end child homelessness in Salem region with new grant

A $5 million grant will bring the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency a significant step closer to getting every unsheltered Salem family out of tents, RVs and cars, and into apartments.

The agency, which serves homeless people and those at risk of losing housing in Marion and Polk counties, was one of 38 selected nationwide for a grant from the competitive Bezos Day 1 Families Fund. They were among an even smaller class of 14 who received the maximum award amount of $5 million, according to a Tuesday announcement. 

On Tuesday morning, Jimmy Jones, the agency’s executive director, said his staff are feeling a little overwhelmed with the honor. It’s a considerable boost to the agency’s annual operating budget of around $70 million.

“We’re really pleased with the honor and the recognition of it all, but it’s also sobering because we have a lot of work to do,” Jones said.

It’s the sixth year of the fund, and the 2023 award totaled over $117 million across 23 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. The awards were selected by an independent advisory board of homelessness experts, who picked programs aimed at solving family homelessness, according to spokeswoman Mayra Gonzalez. Past awardees include Catholic Community Services in Tacoma, Washington, who used the grant to open a drop-in day center for families. 

Jones said more families became homeless through the pandemic and as rental prices increased.

“We had more people who just couldn’t afford to pay their rent. So we have children sleeping in cars and RVs and sometimes outside in tents. And that’s just a real tragedy for the community,” he said.

He said he believes the national award will allow them to shelter most unsheltered families in Marion and Polk counties. The grant is specifically for those who are living outside, rather than to prevent those who are unstably housed from becoming homeless.

There are over 800 unsheltered families in the two counties that are active on the agency’s housing master lists, according to statistics from Ashley Hamilton, chief program officer.

“We do believe that we will be able to help about 1,000 families over the lifetime of this grant,” Jones said.

Their current programs for families include a 36-bed family shelter, a Head Start early education program, move-in assistance and school partnership. Between July 2022 and June 2023, the agency served 1,234 households with 635 children.

Their plans with the Bezos grant include a rapid rehousing program, which would set people up with apartments and provide short-term rental assistance and services to give them the tools and case management to stay housed. Jones said it will be made more possible with a surge of new apartments in the area.

“When we find homeless families, we’re going to try to get keys in their hands as quickly as possible,” he said.

They’ll also be turning their leased property at 1255 Broadway St. N.E. into a family center, which will be a place homeless families can walk into or be referred to for access to resources and money, such as counseling or housing assistance. Referrals would come from culturally specific agencies, families agencies and other community providers.

Jones said they’re still in the planning stages for an exact breakdown of how they’ll spend the grant..

The money will give more personalized help to homeless families. He said it won’t be an automated process like the Rental Assistance Program, which has an application system to distribute money to help people pay rent. People often need longer conversations about how to connect to mental health resources, substance abuse treatment and housing authorities.

“Because homeless families are a growing, but also at the same time somewhat manageable number of households to be addressed, it’ll allow us to do more meaningful, in-depth work with each household,” he said.

Jones expects the programming to begin in the new year. It won’t require a lot of hiring. The agency already has a building, and the plan is largely in place. He said the grant fund will allow them to bridge gaps in existing systems.

“This will just make everything work so much better,” he said.

The impact, he said, will be to get most unsheltered children off Salem streets in the next year and a half. Though new families will come into the system, the funds will target the bulk of the issue within that time.

“I think it’s a great moral failure for the community to have children sleeping outside,” he said. “We’ll really be able to essentially solve most of that particular targeted problem. Especially in Salem, but in all of Marion and Polk we’ll have a fighting chance to solve most of it.”

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.