Bonamici hears CAT success stories
Community support agents recently met with a congresswoman to discuss issues related to housing and veteran services. Representatives from Community Action Team (CAT) presented a range of concerns to Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D) during a meeting on July 5 in St. Helens.
Bonamici, who represents the northwest region of the state, began by sharing her background in legal aid, working her way through college while serving low-income families, learning firsthand how legislative policies affect people’s lives.
During the meeting, Bonamici heard success stories from local residents who have benefitted from services CAT provided. A woman who was struggling with her boyfriend to provide for four children was the first to speak.
Kelsey Brayton said her family has been involved with CAT’s housing program since 2015. When unpaid bills began to stack up, and wintertime limited the construction work available to Brayton’s boyfriend, they sought assistance. CAT found them an apartment and delivered a timely Christmas care package of household essentials such as pillows, blankets and towels.
“That was one of the best Christmases,” Brayton said. “They brought all this stuff – more than we could ever afford.”
While receiving assistance from CAT, Brayton said her family was able to pay off thousands of dollars in debt, purchased a family vehicle, moved into a house, and her boyfriend found better-paying employment. “It feels really good to not have to be on food stamps,” Brayton said. “It feels really good to get to a point where you can pay for everything you need by yourself.”
CAT Executive Director Dan Brown said the lack of available housing in Columbia County makes finding space for families that need assistance as much of a challenge as acquiring funding. He said one of the biggest challenges faced by the agency is finding places for clients, resulting in a delays.
Bonamici said solving the housing issue would take local, state and federal government cooperation along with the private sector. She said one major factor in changing the outlook could be tax credits, explaining that developers of low-income housing are motivated by, and finance work through, tax credits. She said uncertainty in Congress around the future of tax reform may be limiting housing development for low-income families.
“It doesn’t pencil-out without knowing that the tax credit will be there,” she said.
Turning to veterans issues, Bonamici was introduced to 71-year-old Paul Wagner, who is successfully navigating the services he is entitled to with the assistance of Veteran Service Officer Russ Clark. Wagner was living in a camper that was condemned. He turned to CAT for help, and they cleared up the necessary paperwork regarding Wagner’s service and found him stable housing through his veteran benefits.
While Wagner’s story has a happy ending, the battle for affordable housing for veterans is far from over. Clark said while more funding is coming down the pipe, the lack of available units can mean leaving those dollars on the table. He asked Bonamici about an incentive program for housing veterans, something similar to one for hiring veterans.
“We really have a tremendous need,” Clark said. He added there is a significant need, particularly in rural areas, for mental health services. He predicted a wave a need from current veterans in future decades, noting that the wave being seen now is primarily from the Vietnam War era.
Bonamici said there was broad bipartisan agreement that needs of veterans should be met, including recruiting staff for the Department of Veterans Affairs, which she said has faced challenges from private sector opportunities.
Some of the success stories were found among the CAT staff. Dayle Shulda, an Air Force veteran, served as a mechanic and was the lone woman in a unit with 74 men, so she worked twice as hard to prove herself. When she left the service, she did not know she was still entitled to benefits through the VA. Disabled from issues with her back and shoulder due to all that hard work, she discovered through Clark the many benefits the VA offers.
“I think women in general are underserved because I think we’re sometimes overlooked also,” Shulda said. She said she has lost count of the people who mistake her permanent disabled veteran placard as belonging to her husband. She recently took part in a campaign to recognize women veterans as the warriors they are in this day and age.
Bonamici said she often relies on her veteran colleagues in Congress for insight to concerns of women who have served. Clark noted that with the increased number of women serving in the military in recent decades, there will be more need for veteran services for women in the future.