by Helen Caswell

Oregon voters will have the opportunity to decide whether to unlock 1.5 % of Oregon Lottery revenues to help veterans in the state with a permanent ‘set-aside’ for education, housing, employment, healthcare, transportation and for programs that facilitate reintegration. The monies would mean an estimated $18 million/biennium of discretionary Lottery funds and, through that money, the leveraging of billions in federal funds that are available for veterans but are currently left on the table.

The means will be a measure on the November 8 ballot which is the result of the passage of HJR202 in the recent Oregon legislative session.

“If the voters concur,” says Rep. Paul Evans (D – Monmouth) who was the Co-chief sponsor of the original bill, HB202, along with Rep. Julie Parrish (R – West Linn,) “this will be the most consequential investment in veterans’ outreach and support in Oregon’s history. It is an approach that will help end vets’ homelessness, improve opportunity for military families, and begin to restore trust among our veterans and our government.”

As many as 350,000 veterans reside in Oregon cities, towns and rural areas. The US Department of Veteran’s Affairs provides services for less than 100,000. This means, Evans says, “We have over 250,000 vets living in Oregon currently receiving $0.00 despite the fact that they likely have earned direct or indirect care – or both.”

Evans, who served in the military for 20 years, including as Mission Control Commander of Air Control Squadrons in Iraq, Afghanistan and Florida and with the Air Control Squadron of the Oregon Air National Guard, has first-hand knowledge of the challenges of returning veterans. “Each of us knows our nation has failed to keep faith with the men and women we sent – and continue to send – into harm’s way on our behalf.”

Ken Houghton, case manager for the Supportive Services for Veterans Families Program through the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, is an advocate for the ballot measure’s passage.

“I estimate we have 300 homeless vets in Marion and Polk county,” Houghton says, “and a [rental] vacancy rate that is basically zero.” He cites the unique barriers veterans face in obtaining a place to live, including mental health issues, past convictions, and poor credit, adding, “If [the ballot measure] passes, I’m hoping that apartment complexes will be purchased to house these veterans.” One of Houghton’s goals is the creation of complexes that include on-site case services and wrap-around support for veterans; another is that they be self-sustaining so that veterans can have a cap on their rent in a tight market.

“You can’t tell a landlord that they can’t charge a certain amount,” he says. “But if you purchase the place, you can control the rent.”

The Oregon Lottery was created by the initiative petition process in 1984, when voters approved an amendment to the State Constitution. For this reason, although the Legislature has passed HJR202, it will not be law until the Oregonian people decide the issue.

Robert Kerby, who spoke on behalf of vet bill

Robert Kerby, who spoke on behalf of vet bill

Robert Kerby, one of the veterans who testified on behalf of the bill in the legislature, argues strongly that voters should affirm the change. Kerby is a current occupant in Salem’s Home of the Brave, a residence for 5 that offers shelter, meals and a wide range of support to assist homeless veterans in reintegration back into society through skill development, recovery, job placement and self-reliance.

“People who haven’t been in our shoes don’t know where we’re coming from,” Kerby says. “It’s a hand up not a handout. Basically I told [the legislature] that this would give us a better chance to not be a statistic. There are a lot of vets in Oregon sleeping under a tree or a bridge.”

Gerald Pygott from Home of the Brave in Salem

Gerald Pygott from Home of the Brave in Salem

Home of the Brave Deputy Director Gerald Pygott also spoke in the Capitol in support of the bill. Standing before a wall of graduates in the sparkling Home of the Brave clean living room the men keep to military standards, Pygott cites studies that show that every dollar invested in veteran outreach comes back as $77 to the state.

Sen. Brian Boquist (R – Dallas) was an important supporter when the bill moved from House to Senate. “Everyone wants to thank a veteran for their service,” he says, “but many do not want to spend money on them… My fear has always been once THE WAR is over everyone will forget the veterans. It was a near miracle Rep Lively and Rep Evans, with help, got the bill to the Senate.”

Boquist says the concept of HJR202 is not new, that the policy of using state funds to acquire federal benefits began a decade ago, and even the charts from the power point demonstrations in the “202” hearings have been consistent since 2005.

“When the federal government screws over veterans from Oregon,” Boquist says, “it is the default of the citizens of Oregon to help those in crisis. The same as we help all Oregonians in crisis… Seed money from Oregon taxpayers has resulted in billions in increases of federal funds. The challenge is the two administrations and congress in both parties talk ‘veterans’ – but talk is cheap.”

With the support of HJR202 by legislators in both House and Senate and from both sides of the aisle, the next step requires that a small group work with the Attorney General and Secretary of State to write an objective ballot title and analysis to be included in the Voter’s Pamphlet.

Then – it will be up to Oregon voters to decide.

“I am profoundly grateful the Legislature worked with me to get this done: we did the right thing for vets.” Evans says. “We must now work in common cause to get this 1.5% set-aside passed by the voters. Together we can accomplish the mission; together we must.”