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'Benefits Navigators' Proposed to Help OR College Students


Wednesday, February 24, 2021   

PORTLAND, Ore. - It's no secret that college students often are low on cash, but hunger among Oregon students is soaring. A measure in the state Legislature would point them to helpful resources.

House Bill 2835 would create a benefits navigator position on every community college and public university campus in the state to help students apply for federal, state and local benefits programs.

"When students don't know where their next meal is coming from or they're not sure where they're going to sleep that night, it's just impossible to focus on school - even if tuition is paid for," said Mark Mitsui, president of Portland Community College. "If you struggle with basic-needs insecurity, it makes it really, really challenging to complete."

Hunger was an issue on college campuses even before the pandemic. According to a survey from the Hunger-Free Campuses campaign at the start of 2020, 71% of students had experienced food insecurity in the previous 12 months. Mitsui noted that both food and housing insecurity disproportionately affect students of color.

Chris Baker, legislative strategist for Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, said it's important to remember that most college students aren't the typical 18-to-22-year-olds that some people imagine. Baker's first time at college was at age 36, as a single parent.

"I experienced food insecurity, and I know from my own personal experience - and some of the folks on our team - that it's not just about hunger and it's not just about access," she said. "It's a lot more broad than that. It's a systemic issue."

The benefits navigator position was conceived with students, and the bill stipulates that navigators continue to use student feedback to improve the position. Mitsui said navigators could assist in other ways, too, beyond helping students figure out if they qualify for benefits.

"Having somebody who is experienced in creating a welcoming and supportive environment that also lends itself to destigmatizing access to benefits will go a long way," he said.

The state already provides navigators to help people find resources such as food pantries and apply for public assistance on the 211 helpline.

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