INTERVIEW: Pegge McGuire Looks to Heal Community

Pegge McGuire and the Community Services Consortium don’t want to just help you catch up on your rent. They want to make the future better for you, your family, and everyone in Linn, Benton, Lincoln, and even Polk counties.   

Set up through a federal program begun in the early 1960’s and pushed through to every Oregon county during McGuire’s ten years in the Fair Housing Council of Oregon, the Community Services Consortium is likely the most powerful charitable group in town. And they’re looking to create something like Utopia right here in the Mid-Willamette Valley. 

TCA: Hi, I’m Sally Lehman, and I’m with The Advocate. Today, I’m speaking with Pegge McGuire, the executive director of the Community Services Consortium located here in Corvallis. HiTT Pegge, thank you for being here.  

McGuire: Hi, Sally. Thanks for having me.  

TCA: According to your website, your organization works with over 1,000 other anti-poverty groups. Is that nationwide or worldwide?  

McGuire: That’s nationwide. So the Community Action Agency Network is a national network and 99% of the counties in the entire United States have a Community Action Agency that represents them. Some are like CSC where we represent three separate counties – Linn, Benton, and Lincoln, and other strictly just cover one county or a part of the county.  

TCA: So you brought up the Community Action Advisory Council – the CAAC. How are your two entities connected?  

McGuire: Community Services Consortium is kind of an interesting structure. We are an ORS 190 organization, which is a unit of government. That means that we were chartered by the three counties to go forth and do the work that we do.   

It doesn’t mean that they give us any financial support. We have to make our own money so that in that way we work like a nonprofit, but as a community action agency, which is delineated and discussed and kind of created by the Federal Economic Opportunity Act, which is part of the original civil rights legislation from 1963 and ’64.   

We are required to have a tripartite board. And what that means is that we are required to have one-third of the people that we work with either from the low income community or that represent low income communities – [much like] legal aid services, where they have an income threshold for the clients they serve, one-third elected officials, and one-third from the community at large. And the CAAC – the Community Action Advisory Council – in our case is our tripartite board.   

So our governing board is kind of like our fiduciary board. They conduct our business, they’re financially responsible for us, and they make sure that we adhere to all the state and local regulations. The CAAC is like the heart and soul of what we do, they’re the passion, they bring the excitement and the community perspective to what we do. And they are the ones that hold us accountable to ensuring that we do a community needs assessment on a regular basis – that we identify with the gaps and needs in our community and that the programs that we deliver meet the needs of that community. And so we take that responsibility and that relationship with them very seriously.  

TCA: Could you outline the basic services that CSC offers people?  

McGuire: We have a myriad of services, and it’s interesting.   

So we’ve been around 40 years – let me just tell you that, and we have been really working hard in the last decade to really braid the work that we do, braid the funding resources, because resources wax and wane. It’s very difficult to keep a static flow of resources.   

And so what we’re really trying to do is not give people a transaction. We don’t want to give you just a utility payment. We don’t want to give you just a little assistance. We don’t want to give you just resume preparation services. We want to transform your life in the way that you want it transformed and to meet the goals that you have for your household.   

So we have what’s called an inter-gen program, which is an intergenerational [program], it’s multiple generations in one family. We work with the parents, with the children – if grandpa and grandma live in the household, we work with them, too. And we do a lot of work around trauma, response and resilience building, helping people determine what it is that they want from their life. Then build their capacity to achieve that – to work, to do the job search, livable wage training, on-the-job training, resume preparation, work to pay for certifications to do job training – maybe they want to be a commercial truck driver or maybe they want to get some sort of a computer degree.  

We work to help provide wraparound services for the entire family so that their household is stabilized – so rent assistance, utility bill payment assistance. Sometimes we have people who have unusual circumstances that our programs don’t really cover, and we have a wonderfully generous community that we serve and they provide donations so we’re able to use those donations for that kind of work.   

So here are a couple of examples of what happened.   

One, we had a family that during COVID, both parents lost their jobs and they couldn’t make their car payments for three months. So we were able to make their car payments for them, get them caught up, make an advance car payment. And then when they went back to work, they had a car that they could use to go to work.   

We had an elderly gentleman that couldn’t afford his taxes on his own, and he was going to lose his manufactured housing. And that was the only real asset that he had and the only place he had to live. So we paid his taxes for him.  

So we can do some really flexible funding.   

We also operate a Food Share, which is a regional food bank. They support the food pantries and the meal sites in the community. We also, with Linn-Benton Food Share, do intentional production, which means that we contract with local farms to grow food that we can put in the food boxes that we have. And then, once we can get back to post-COVID and do grocery style shopping where we have people come in and pick what they want, then we have lots of produce out, and we teach people how to use that produce. The nice thing about intentional production is that, because it supports our local farmers, it keeps them in business, and they hire local people, and it reduces the carbon footprint because we’re not transporting food all over the place.   

We have worked extensively with a variety of partners to do food boxes that are specifically for seniors and also specifically for people who have nutritional issues. So, for example, they might be released from the hospital and they keep going back to the hospital because they’re not able to keep themselves nutritionally supported sufficiently to stay healthy. And so the nutritionist at the hospital writes a prescription, and we make specialized food boxes for those folks and provide those to them weekly. And so far, anybody who’s participated in that program has not had to go back to the hospital.   

We support the gleaning program, which are over 7,500 individuals in Linn and Benton County that go out to farms after the farm produce has been harvested, and they get what’s leftover and they share that with other people. And all those folks are low income, so they need that food themselves. [Then] we teach preserving classes in that program, so people know how to preserve that food.   

We have Head Start in Lincoln County. We have a charter high school in Lincoln County with very exciting programs – a drone academy, health services, and culinary education. So young people who are interested in those fields can go into that line of work.  

And, because of the way that the funding falls, we also serve Polk County. We have a Stream Lab in Polk County so that we provide education for young people who are interested in manufacturing. They can learn 3D printing, they can learn industrial sewing, laser engraving, robotics – just so many interesting things.   

Our housing programs are very robust. We not only help people who are unhoused get into housing, but we help people who are precariously housed or at risk of eviction, remain in their housing and prevent them from homelessness.  

TCA: Going back to one of the first things you talked about, you said [you’re offering] a livable wage training…  

McGuire: A living wage. If I said livable, then I made a mistake.  

TCA: Living wage training is interesting. What do you mean by that?  

McGuire: Sometimes the folks that come to us might be working in really basic service industry type of jobs, or jobs where they’re extremely underemployed. We also work with a lot of people who are part of the informal economy – which means that they sell plasma for a living, or they pick up cans for a living, or they repair cars and sell them for a living. And so they don’t have any kind of unemployment benefits or any opportunities if they lose their work or they can’t do the work that they’re doing – they don’t have the ability to get any kind of support for that.   

And so we work with folks and say, ‘OK, what are you doing now and where do you want to be?’   

Then we help them plan a career path. Maybe they really have always wanted to do data entry or they wanted to get into insurance billing or something where they’re making a reasonable wage that you can expect to support your family. In Linn, Benton, and Lincoln counties, if you look – there’s a bunch of different wage calculators out there, if you look at it for one person, $16 an hour is considered to be a livable wage. Well, most of our clients have multiple person households and maybe have only one wage earner in that household. So helping them figure out what they need to make to be able to support their household and to have all their basic needs met.  

TCA: I know that the unhoused issue in Corvallis is a very big and somewhat controversial issue.  

McGuire: In the entire nation.   

TCA: Are there any plans to work with the number of people that are unhoused in our area?  

McGuire: Oh, we work with literally thousands of people a year. So I would say that, if you look at everybody we serve in all the counties we serve, CSC serves about 75,000 people a year. And that runs the gamut of different types of activities.   

Right now, one of the things that we’re dealing with is rental assistance. The eviction moratorium is ended. The CDC moratorium is about to end. And we assume that we will only be able to serve about 25% of the people who will not be able to pay their rent.   

I was looking at statistics today. More than 35,000 people in Oregon say they are either very likely or somewhat likely not to be able to pay their rent and be evicted because of that within the next two months. And so we are rushing to push as many rent assistance dollars as we have out the door to keep people from being evicted. So if we can keep people housed, that’s a great thing.   

But getting people rehoused once they’ve been unhoused is problematic. So, you have people who are recently unhousing – they got evicted, for whatever reason they lost their housing. Getting them back into housing, we have housing placement advocates, we have housing navigators, we have rent assistance, and we have deposit assistance.  

But then you have people who are chronically homeless, and those are the ones that are really in the forefront of everybody’s mind right now. People with long, long term homelessness, oftentimes with substance use disorders, oftentimes with mental health disorders, and physical health disabilities. People just struggle.   

And so it’s difficult to get them housed because they have many barriers. So we have to work really intensively with them. Then once they are housed, they need a lot of services to support them. So not only do they need financial services, but they really need our case managers to work with them one-on-one and help them navigate that. [Meaning] help them figure out how to mediate relationships with their neighbors. Help them figure out what it’s like to be living back in a setting where other people are close by around you and are concerned if you make noise. Helping people understand how to interact with a landlord in a positive and healthy way, so that if you need a repair, or if the landlord accuses you of something and it’s not true, or you feel uncomfortable, that there’s a way that you have that you can manage that so you can stay stably housed.  

TCA: The goal of CSC is to end poverty in Linn, Benton, Lincoln, and now Polk counties. Do you think that that’s an attainable goal? That it’s possible to end poverty? 

McGuire: I’m an eternal optimist. I wouldn’t do this work if I wasn’t. One of the things about community action that is so near and dear to my heart is [that] community action is not just about helping people who are in poverty. It’s about helping the entire community understand what systemically we [can] change that will end poverty and what everybody’s piece of that is.   

And so I do believe that we can end poverty. I believe if we have a political will to do it, we can end it. Certainly, like I said, we have so many people that reach out to us on a regular basis that are so generous. I just cannot even begin to tell you the number of people who reached out during COVID and said, ‘We want to help you. We’re sending you $5, $500, $5,000, and we want you to use this in any way that is most needed in the community.’  

And I believe that there are enough of those people out there in our community that, if we come together and we can have a strategic plan about how we’re going to impact this, we can end poverty. We can end the whole system of what keeps people churning out into poverty.   

TCA: There are some who would say that if we were to end monetary elitism or poverty in that regard, that another type of poverty would develop – educational or a caste system type of thing. What would be your response to those people?  

McGuire: It’s a great question. So a couple of things. One, I’m Jewish. And so, you know, I’ve seen some of the memes about ‘First they came for this one and nobody said anything, and then they came for that one and nobody said anything.’ And then they came for that one and nobody said anything. And next they’ll come for you. Will somebody speak out for you?’   

And so I do believe that there are gradations of things and that somebody always is on the bottom of the heap. But as a society, I truly believe that we can raise our consciousness level to a point that we can stop doing that. We can get healthy, and we can stop doing that. And I think that it starts really early, like I was telling you about, that we work with the trauma and resilience that our families have dealt with. If we focus on mental health and wellness and resilience building and figuring out healthy ways for people to communicate, I just think that we can end that can be a different kind of society.  

TCA: Recently, Oregon’s House Bill 2100 redefined how funding for housing the poor would be distributed. How will that affect your organization’s ability to continue in the projects that you support?  

McGuire: Thanks for asking that question. It was a challenging legislative session in that regard.  

Oregon worked really hard to create a system where every single county had a community action agency that represented them. I worked at the state at the time that we finalized the last four counties that didn’t have community action agencies, that was Harney, Malheur, Klamath, and Lake, and we worked with those communities to create a community action agency. And the idea was that this was a rapid delivery system for emergency response.  

So when there was a disaster in Vernonia – there was flooding and then there were severe windstorms out on the coast – I was able, at the state of Oregon, to contact the community action agencies there and say, what do you guys need? We already had an agreement in place. They told me what their community needed and we could get money out the door to them ASAP to be responsive in hours, literally. And so that’s what the community action agency was designed to do.   

There was a lot of thought and concern that community action agencies were too exclusive, that there should not be a system where money was allocated by formula to community action agencies, that there needed to be other people brought into the fold. Well, many of our organizations, like my organization, subcontract with other local community partners.  

And there was really, in my opinion, no consideration given to that. It looked from somebody’s viewpoint like money went straight to community action and nobody else got any money. And then, of course, there are always other grassroots community organizations that haven’t had the experience of delivering these dollars that are saying, ‘Well, you should give us money, too.’ And they’re not aware that you have to put that money out the door and wait to get reimbursed. So if you have a little tiny grassroots organization, those kinds of contracts can literally break your agency and make it fall apart.   

And again, my opinion, it’s best to contract with me, and I will bear the brunt of that. I’ll send the money out to you, and you help me ensure that my clients, that all of the clients, have equitable access to our services and to our programs, and that we are reaching as broadly out into the community as we can. But I’m not going to put you in a position where anything that I work with you to do will undermine your agency. And so that’s been kind of the struggle of House Bill 2100 is who gets access to the money and how do they get access to the money. 

TCA: What would your advice be to someone who has for the first time looking at the possibility of becoming houseless due to the pandemic?  

McGuire: Do not wait. Do not close your eyes. Do not put your head in the sand. Reach out immediately to CSC. Even if you have already received money from us in the past.   

There’s a broad urban legend out there that, because of some of the funding sources that we’ve used in the past that only allow a one time access, that this money that we currently have only allows one time access. That’s not true. If you owe money to your landlord, reach out to us immediately, and we are going to knock ourselves out to figure out a way to help you. And if we do the eligibility screening, and if we don’t have certain types of funds that can help, we may have other types of funds like some of those community donations. Don’t just assume that you’re not eligible.  

TCA: And if a person actually has the eviction notice in hand, what would you advise them to do?  

McGuire: Again, depends on what’s going on. So if it’s an eviction notice for non-payment, contact us for help with the payment. Contact the legal aid services to be sure that the notice was issued properly.   

Some landlords were confused and mistakenly preempted the moratorium period and began giving notices before they were legally allowed to do that. What we’re trying to really do is buy people time to get the landlord made whole with the funding and keep the tenant in place. And so if there’s an error with the notice, Legal Aid can help with that. And if it’s a financial assistance piece, CSC can potentially help with that. And if not, we have other referral partners that we can send you to.  

TCA: Are you finding that the landlords who are moving toward eviction quickly are more of the large companies that hold property or the independent, small business person? 

 McGuire: It’s just all over the map. I just desperately feel for some of the landlords. I’ve been signing checks that leave our agency for $25,000 – $30,000 for one tenant, people who have not paid rent from the beginning of the pandemic until now. And then we also have the ability to pay rent forward for several months, because we feel that people will need a little time to get stabilized and we don’t want to see them just because we only paid for the past due period.   

And… a lot of these landlords have maintained those investment properties because that is their retirement plan. That is the way that they are making their income. There are a lot of older folks that the only income they have is their rental income. So I really feel for everybody on all sides of this and we just want to get everybody made whole again.  

TCA: Your organization has received large amounts of COVID relief funding. How would someone go about accessing that if they needed it in terms of relief?  

McGuire: So the most important thing that people can do is go on our website if they have that capacity. And our website is very smartphone friendly and it’s very easy to navigate what kind of help you need.   

We got COVID relief funding in almost every category of program that we have. And so really what they need to do is: they need to figure out what their primary concern is, go on [the website], and then if they have secondary concerns – say, if you need to pay rent, go on to Housing Help, but when you’re talking to the Housing Help, say, ‘And I’m also behind on my utility bills.’   

So we have the ability to help people with water, sewer, broadband, any kind of heating or electrical payments. We even can help people who don’t have those conventional heating, like maybe they have propane or maybe they have wood pellets or oil heat – we can help with that. We have a cooling program for people who are experiencing extreme heat and need help with cooling. So just begin! Start the process where you think you most need help and then just ask the person who is working with you for whatever else your needs are, because our folks are just amazing. They’re truly amazing. They just want to help everybody.  

TCA: Recently, more than $2.6 million was allocated to Corvallis groups for social services. How much of that grant money could CSC receive and how will you disperse it?  

McGuire: And so there are a couple of things that I know about that I can talk with you about.   

The state legislature allocated a certain amount to each representative and each senator. Those senators and representatives were actively engaged with organizations all over the county talking about what are the most needed projects. So in those particular instances, CSC is not a direct recipient of any of that money. We’re partnering with other organizations and we’re braiding our funding into some of those programs. Like one of those activities with Senator Gelser or Representative Rayfield that allocated funding for a Food Innovation Hub, and so our Linn-Benton Food Share folks have been working really closely with the folks at Economic Development on that and other partners. So that’s one example.   

But then there are other funds that have come directly to CSC via Oregon Housing and Community Services, via competitive grants that we’ve had with philanthropic organizations, via Oregon Health Authority and Department of Human Services, and so all of that is married together and we try to make that seamless for the client.  

A client comes to us and says, ‘Gee, I need all of these things,’ and we don’t make [them] say, ‘Oh, I need light money and I need emergency solutions grant money.’   

We say, ‘OK, you need these things. Here’s what we’re going to do for you. We’re going to pay your rent. We’re going to pay your utilities. We’re going to get you lined up for food boxes. We’re going to do all these things. We’re going to sign you up for the STEP program. We’re going to sign you up for employment activities. We’re going to get you some health equity dollars. And this is what it’s going to mean to you in the end.’  

TCA: There are several community oriented groups who are aiming to make the world a better place. But do you feel that there are the resources within this community to support all of them?  

McGuire: You know, that’s interesting because there are so many nonprofits out there and everybody’s kind of competing in some ways for similar pots of funding. But one of the things that I think is beautiful about the Corvallis community is there’s such a level of deep respect and partnership among the different organizations. And oftentimes I find myself just reaching out.   

I sent an email to some colleagues recently, and said ‘Throwing spaghetti on the wall.’ And I said, ‘Here’s what I want to do.’ And I reached out to a bunch of my most likely candidate partners and said, ‘Do you guys want to talk about this?’   

And everybody [answered], ‘Yes, we do.’   

And so we jumped in together and we started a dialogue about that. And we’re all so super lucky or we’ve been rewarded by our diligence or whatever you want to look at it as, by our Benton County Commissioners and our Corvallis City Council, that the folks that we are working with as elected officials have this really strong collaborative and partnership kind of relationship. And they really are always looking for ways to funnel us all together to have these conversations.  

TCA: So what are your plans? What are your spaghetti throwing plans for the future?  

McGuire: Well, that particular spaghetti throwing plan was about land banking.   

So Eugene and Lane County have been very successful in having substantial amounts of affordable housing. And the way that they did that was back in the day, decades ago, they began a land banking process.   

People would come to them and say, ‘Gee, I want to donate land or I want to sell this really inexpensively.’ They would bank that land. And then as nonprofit organizations came with a plan to build affordable housing and access to other funding sources for the bricks and mortar piece, they were able to either donate the land or sell it at a very reasonable price – whatever they paid for it for quite some time ago – which dropped the total cost of the project and then made the proposal which the affordable housing group was doing very appealing to the funders.   

And so that was what my spaghetti against the wall discussion was most recently. ‘Hey, we should be able to figure out a way to do this.’ Because right now there are so many generous people who are calling up different organizations and saying, ‘You know, I want to donate some property,’ or ‘I have this property that I inherited from my mom and I don’t want to keep it, but I want it to go to a good cause.’   

The Linn-Benton Housing Authority got a phone call from a family who owned a small acreage and they said, ‘You know, we’re ready to sell our property, but we want to go to some good cause.’ And there’s an affordable housing development there now because they were able to strike a great deal.  

TCA: That’s a wonderful aspect of humanity that we’re seeing come out.   

McGuire: Most definitely.   

TCA: Thank you for your time, Pegge. I really appreciated your conversation and your enthusiasm.  

McGuire: Thank you so much for asking me. This is my favorite topic. I’m happy to talk about it any time. 

By Sally K Lehman