Seniors at greatest risk from COVID-19 fallout; CAT director seeks flexible state funds to shore up shore up social services as needed

PMG FILE PHOTO - St. Helens Senior Center Kitchen Manager Jennifer Meabe and Emma and Debbie Parsons prepare meals for home-delivery in the centers kitchen last month.

Meals delivered to seniors in south Columbia County are still occurring — at least for now.

At an emergency meeting of the St. Helens Senior Center board of directors Tuesday, March 10, Kathy Innocenti, the senior center's executive director, received board authorization to dip into the center's set-aside funds to allow the meal service to continue.

The Meals on Wheels program services seniors living in the Scappoose and St. Helens areas.

At present, and barring any further state or federal assistance, the meals program is staring at a $5,000 monthly shortfall. To cushion some of the blow, Innocenti pointed to a temporary reduction of hours imposed at Top Notch Thrift Store, the senior center's retail outlet that also serves as a fundraising platform.

"Since we are not bringing in enough money to cover the costs of the meals, we've made the tough decision to cut staff hours to save on payroll," a post on the senior center's Facebook page notes.

Innocenti said the center receives $1.25 for each meal it provides as the result of three separate funding streams. Due to an increase in the volume of people served prior to the coronavirus outbreak, one of those streams is drying up, at least for the months of April, May and June, she said, bringing the per-meal reimbursement rate to only 75 cents. The shortfall would have been even higher had the center not acted to cut personnel costs.

Dan Brown, executive director at Community Action Team, which provides a variety of services to seniors and low-income populations, said seniors are the most at risk as the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread. Congregate meals for seniors as a group have been cut and there are concerns about drivers who deliver meals to seniors' homes.

Brown said his agency has submitted requests to the state for assistance. In particular, CAT is probing for funds that allow for flexible spending as it is currently unknown where the emergency hotspots are going to pop up.

"This stuff is developing so fast. I can't even write policy fast enough right now," he said.

Senior center thrift store revenue has not been robust since news of the novel coronavirus has dominated headlines. Innocenti said sales have been cut nearly in half. With in-person fundraiser events scuttled, or not even possible due to public gathering bans, the center has turned to digital platforms to raise cash for the meals service.

"We've got to do virtual fundraisers now," she said.

She also pointed to product sales moving to websites such as Etsy, a site popular for jewelry and handcrafted items.

"Maybe they'll do a little online shopping," Innocenti said, while also acknowledging the expected difficulty to attract consumers in light of mounting unemployment claims.

Volunteers, including restauranteurs who are weathering their own economic storm following a statewide restriction on dine-in service at bars and restaurants to encourage greater social distancing, have stepped up to help. On the restaurant front, she said she has received food donations following the dine-in service ban.

She also said there has been a little bit of a silver lining

as volunteers have helped clean and organize senior center operations from top to bottom.

"We're trying to look at it in an positive way," she said. "There's that, and I just appreciate the restaurants helping us out."

To donate, visit the Top Notch Thrift Store's Facebook page.

CAT operations, family resources

The coronavirus outbreak is having a damaging effect on populations with social service needs. CAT decided this week to close its Family Resource Center to the public, which provides a range of services including utility and housing assistance, and more.

Brown said the best way to contact CAT is by calling 503-397-3511 or via the agency's website.

"The best thing to do is just call," Brown said.

He added that people seeking assistance are going to have to be patient.

"We have a steady, regular flow on a day-to-day basis. It's going to impact people," Brown said. "They're just going to have to be patient. It's the best way we can serve them at this time."

Brown is seeking approval from the state to suspend signature requirements necessary for the agency to act on a person's behalf, though that effort is still in the works.

Home visits for CAT's Head Start, Healthy Families, Weatherization and Home Rehabilitation programs have all been suspended, at least until April 13.

In response to a mandate by some municipalities, including Portland and Multnomah County, to suspend evictions and the disconnection of utilities at this time, Brown is urging people to continue to pay their rent and utility bills as much as possible. He said he is also sensitive to landlords who will still have mortgages to pay.

"While I am supportive of (an eviction and utility shutoff freeze), I am also really fearful what that's going to mean two months from now," he said, noting that need will likely surpass available resources for renters and homeowners. "They need to continue to pay as much as possible. Again, as we're asking for funds, who knows what's going to happen? It could be anywhere from zero to sufficient, and I seriously doubt it's going to be sufficient."

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