Illustration by Jon Sperry

ERNEST BARTON was homeless for two months, lived in a shelter for four and a half months, and then landed in Central City Concern's public housing for six months.

He now rents a room of his own, and has lived there since last August.

But without help from Central City Concern—which covered the 27-year-old's first and last month's rent, as well as half his rent from August through December while he paid down medical bills—that never would have happened.

Central City Concern offered its aid thanks to the Housing Authority of Portland's Short-Term Rent Assistance Program. The program helps low-income people pay their rent, either to keep them in their homes or quickly get them into new ones.

"It helped me survive," says Barton, who found a job pumping gas after 14 months of searching. "It helped me get on my feet."

Thousands of other Portlanders in Barton's straits were equally lucky. Some 2,915 people—57 percent of which were children—avoided becoming homeless thanks to a federal stimulus program that steered $4.1 million to Portland since 2009, according to a recent report the Portland Housing Bureau submitted to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"We can reasonably say that 2,900 people would have become homeless without this additional funding," says Ryan Deibert, a Portland Housing Bureau homeless program coordinator, commenting on the report.

That money, however, will dry up by June. A state program, the Emergency Housing Account (or EHA), could make up the difference, but it is poised to see its general fund budget cut, not raised.

Now advocates and social services providers worry that those people, and many more, will become homeless.

The Housing Alliance, an advocacy group supporting affordable housing and homelessness programs, has called on the legislature to increase the EHA. The EHA provides emergency funding for shelters, rent or utility assistance, and other programs that help families either remain in their homes or quickly get back into different houses.

"This is our most flexible resource to end and prevent homelessness. We're going to need every penny of state funding possible to keep families stable," the Housing Alliance's legislative agenda reads, noting that the federal money will not be available after this year.

Salem is struggling to close a $3.5 billion budget hole. Expectations are that the EHA's general fund budget will be $5.2 million for the next biennium, starting in July—$700,000 lower than the current budget.

But it will get an additional shot in the arm. Starting this year, the state's document recording fee, which collects a fee for recorded real estate documents that is directly funneled to affordable housing programs, will bring $3.2 million to the EHA.

Even that is still millions below what advocates say is necessary.

"It is good news," says Janet Byrd, executive director of Neighborhood Partnership Fund, a nonprofit member of the Housing Alliance. "The governor is more than protecting the EHA. [But] it is scratching the surface."

"We're really concerned that people are going to lose their homes," says Alison McIntosh, a project associate with Neighborhood Partnership Fund. "The EHA is a proven, effective, and efficient program that has been able to help lots of people prevent or end their homelessness."

Portland received its federal funding through the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, part of President Obama's stimulus program. The money was given to local governments to keep poor, unemployed, or other similarly vulnerable people from becoming homeless. The state received $15 million, $4.1 of which went to Portland.

"It is an emergency response to address the realities of the recession," says the housing bureau's Deibert.

The bureau decided to give Portland's share to the Housing Authority of Portland and its Short-Term Rent Assistance Program. That program helps low-income people pay some or all of their rent for up to two years, or until they no longer need the assistance.

"It is a flexible and direct response to each family's need," Deibert says.

To qualify for rent assistance, there has to be "clear evidence that people would be homeless without the assistance," says Ian Slingerland, the Housing Authority of Portland's rent assistance program manager. Even with the federal funding, Slingerland says, people continue to be turned away.

"I can't say enough good things about [the program]," Barton says.

Deibert expects the federal funding to be gone by June. He says the Housing Authority, Multnomah County, and Portland are requesting increases in their rent-assistance budgets to cover the lost federal funding. But Multnomah County is facing general fund cuts, and while Portland has a surplus for the next fiscal year, several other programs are competing for that largesse.

Alison McIntosh, project associate at the Neighborhood Partnership Fund, says the legislature's Ways and Means Committee will consider the EHA's funding in late March.

But as murky as the fate of those budgets might be, advocates say, what will happen without the extra money is perfectly clear.

As Deibert put it: "More people will become homeless."