Seth Bowden
AFTER KAREN'S HUSBAND was injured, he was out of work for nearly 18 months. Slowly, the family fell short by a few hundred dollars each month on their bills and mortgage. "All the bills just started to accumulate," she explained.Over the course of a year, the family tried to scrape money together. At the same time, they went to Adult and Family Services (AFS), essentially to beg for help. But their caseworker said there were no programs that could help them. In December, their house, in a middle-class neighborhood of Northeast Portland, was foreclosed on and the family was forced to move into a compact rented home, where their 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter share a tiny bedroom.

"They pick and choose who they will help," said Karen, in reference to the caseworkers at AFS. Though her husband has since found a job, and they have received assistance from AFS after threatening legal action, Karen bemoans their losses, maintaining that none of them would have happened if their caseworker had fully informed them about AFS programs.

Workers from various social agencies around Portland claim that such incompetence--or, even worse, indifference--is common at AFS. Their claims have been backed up by stories from about a dozen families in Portland who have lost their homes, or are still struggling to obtain help.

The most recent complaints have focused on a new program, a spinoff from the popular welfare-to-work philosophy: the home-work voucher. Although not available when Karen's family was sinking into debt, the program is designed to help "working poor" families pay their rents or mortgages.

Under the new program, awarded by way of a federal grant in April, families who are working or seeking work can receive as much as two-thirds of their rent or mortgage through vouchers. To receive the assistance, applicants must commonly pass through a screening process at AFS.

Lorey Freeman, an attorney with Oregon Law Center, complained, "You have to be amazed that it hasn't occurred to caseworkers," referring to the reportedly high incidence of AFS workers neglecting to tell clients about home-work vouchers. Although Freeman works primarily as a policy advocate, she has represented three families in the past several weeks who are trying to obtain benefits from AFS.For their part, AFS and the local agency that oversees the program, Housing Authority of Portland (HAP), have applauded the home-work voucher program. In Multnomah County alone, 700 vouchers are available for low-income families. If all are distributed, this program will infuse $4.3 million in aid to local low-income families over the course of a single year. Judith Brown, Community Resource Coordinator for AFS, explained, "We want to do something for working people to give them an extra boost."

HAP also has remained steadfast with its praise for the program. Rose Bak, Assistant Director for Federal Housing Program at HAP, pointed out that more than half of the 700 vouchers have been distributed in both Multnomah and Washington Counties. "In Washington County," said Bak, "about a hundred families have already found housing and another 300 are looking." The remainder of home-work vouchers must be handed out by mid-April or be forfeited.

But while advocates and working poor families welcome the program, they claim that the distribution of vouchers is inconsistent, largely dependent on the whims of AFS caseworkers.

Besides neglecting to inform needy families about home-work vouchers, critics say that AFS has failed to undertake sufficient outreach efforts. An e-mail recently obtained by the Mercury documents a correspondence between AFS and the Oregon Human Rights Coalition. In the e-mail, AFS asks for assistance in finding needy families--even though a motel filled with out-of-work families is located just a few blocks from the new AFS offices on SE 82nd.