The Oregon State Capitol canceled a Cherry Blossom Festival scheduled in March due to COVID-19. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)
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Businesses, immigrant workers, homeless people and others struggling with the COVID-19 outbreak stand to benefit from over $30 million in funds approved by a legislative panel on Thursday.
The Legislature's Joint Emergency Board, a panel of 20 lawmakers empowered to allocate money between legislative sessions, acted to fill gaps left by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed last month.
At the top of the board’s agenda was $12 million in aid to homeless Oregonians or those on the brink of homelessness. Of that funding, $3.5 million will be used for hotel vouchers and other shelter options for homeless people and farmworkers.
The remaining $8.5 million will be used help low-income people pay rent and keep from becoming homeless. The money will be directed to the state Housing and Community Services Department, which in turn will funnel it to local homeless agencies.
Jimmy Jones, executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, said that he expects up to $1.2 million to be used in Salem. He said either his agency or another organization in the Salem area will receive about $350,000 for hotel vouchers. He said the new state money won’t last long.
According to Jones, his agency has spent about $70,000 per week to keep 125 people in motels for about five weeks.
As for the $850,000 homeless prevention money, he said his agency will have to work out a formula to determine how to spend it. He said he hopes to stretch it out to help 325 to 350 households. But he said that while the funds are meaningful it will serve less than 1% of the homeless population in Marion and Polk counties and is only about a third of what's needed for homeless prevention. .
“This is not a panacea, right?” he said.
The legislative board approved $10 million for unemployed workers, particularly immigrants, who are not eligible for programs such as unemployment benefits. The money would be distributed by the Oregon Community Foundation, a large grant-making organization.
Applicants for the money must live and work in Oregon, have lost their job because of the pandemic, and don’t quality for other wage-replacement programs. They could get up to $590 a week.
Reyna Lopez, executive director of farmworkers advocacy group Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, said in an email that the funding would help 15,000 farmworkers in Oregon who can’t get unemployment benefits.
“Oregon is doing right by workers falling through the cracks, bringing money directly in the hands of Oregonians who will spend the money right away on bills, rent, and groceries,” she said. “This will keep our economies moving, and our families from financial ruin.”
While immigrants are eligible for unemployment benefits, undocumented immigrants are not. Earlier this month, the Oregon Center for Public Policy, a left-leaning think tank, called on the state government to offer help to undocumented immigrants who work in industries that have been devastated by the outbreak, such as hotels and construction.
According to the Oregon Center for Public Policy, there are an estimated 18,000 undocumented immigrants in Marion County who annually pay $14 million in state and local taxes.
“We think it’s a good first step,” Juan Carlos Ordonez, the center’s communications director. “It’s not nearly enough for what will be needed just for the scale of the problem that we’re talking about.”
He said his group hopes the Legislature will take more action during a special session that could be called in the coming months.
The board also allocated $10 million to help businesses with 25 or fewer employees who haven’t received help from federal relief programs. The Paycheck Protection Program, a key part of the federal relief effort to keep workers employed, ran out of the $349 billion allocated to it in less than two weeks. According to one analysis, less than half of Oregon’s eligible payroll qualified for funding.
Hours after the legislative action, Congress passed a $310 billion infusion into the Paycheck program.
Clarification: This post has been updated to clarify how many people will be covered by homeless prevention money.
Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.