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Bonamici stops by 'Community Conversation' in St. Helens

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Jim Tierney, executive director of the nonprofit Community Action Team Inc., leads off a 'Community Conversation on Poverty' in St. Helens on Tuesday, June 30.Several dozen representatives of nonprofit groups, public agencies and more met Tuesday, June 30, for a “Community Conversation on Poverty” event at the Community Action Team Inc. office in St. Helens.

Organizations like the United Way of Columbia County, the Oregon Department of Human Services, SAFE of Columbia County and others had a presence at the five-hour event, at which participants discussed issues in dealing with poverty and homelessness locally and brainstormed potential solutions.

Jim Tierney, CAT's executive director, led off with what he described as “a scary presentation” on the causes and effects of poverty in the United States.

“Part of the reason I feel the need for us all to understand the history of poverty in America is because I think it is so thoroughly misunderstood by our people in leadership in America,” Tierney said. “There's a lot of messages floating around in society that are, if you understand the history, they're not correct.”

Martha Olmstead, who works in CAT's housing resources division, said as many as 16 to 18 people have come to CAT seeking housing assistance in a single week recently — and for many of them, the best the nonprofit group can do is give them tarps and tents to make life without a home just a little bit more manageable.

“I wish I could tell you the picture is pretty, but it's not,” she said.

While Tierney pointed out that federal spending on public housing has dropped off sharply over the past four decades and the lion's share of federal dollars toward combating poverty now go toward healthcare, he suggested the problems go beyond financial resources.

“At some point, we can't afford to continue to throw money at problems,” Tierney said. “We have to find a way to do better at it.”

The availability of housing in Columbia County for low-income residents is much more limited than it was just a few years ago, according to Olmstead. Additionally, she said, many of the people who come to CAT for housing assistance have other “barriers,” such as mental illnesses, criminal records or substance addictions.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., speaks to an audience at the Community Action Team Inc. building in St. Helens on Tuesday, June 30.Columbia County's congresswoman, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, also stopped by the event for about 20 minutes. She addressed the group and took a few questions on her legislative efforts to secure more funding for community action groups like CAT, which Tierney called a “nexus” to coordinate many other groups and agencies in their efforts to address poverty and other issues within communities.

“Sometimes it feels like we're struggling to just maintain current funding,” Bonamici said. “If we can get increases, it's wonderful. We'll try to do that, because again, there is a lot of unmet need.”

Bonamici expressed optimism about the prospects for renewing federal community development block grant funding, which supports local anti-poverty efforts. But she acknowledged it has been harder to line up enough support for an update to the Older Americans Act, which supports senior nutrition programs and other forms of elder care. She also called “embarrassing” the federal minimum wage of $7.25 — which has been unchanged for nearly six years, and which many conservative members of Congress are reluctant to raise.

After a lunch break, participants had the opportunity to discuss ways that poverty in Columbia County could be better addressed. They produced a list of barriers and ideas for how to break them down, which Tierney said will be assessed and summarized by CAT.

Similar events to the one in St. Helens on Tuesday have already been held in Clatsop and Tillamook counties, Tierney said. CAT is physically based in Columbia County, but it serves all three of those counties.

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