In the community, Local government

Merkley tackles housing, homelessness questions at Vale town hall session

VALE – U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, said one of his top priorities is to ensure families in America thrive and afford entry-level homes.

Merkley talked about the ongoing challenge of housing in Oregon and elsewhere before a town hall meeting Friday, May 17, at the Vale Senior Citizen Center.

During the meeting, Merkley answered questions from a crowd of about 40 people. Questions ranged from border security, stalled drug trials, homelessness and behavioral health for youth.

Merkley said the ability to buy a starter home is part of a social contract in the United States.

He said, though, that hedge funds are buying up housing, mostly in urban areas. That, in turn, has limited the inventory for those seeking to buy their first home.

“We have to build housing families can afford to buy,” he said.

He also said homeless shelters should be constructed “at every level.”

Vale resident Lucy Hutchinson asks a question during a town hall meeting with U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, Friday, May 17 in Vale. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL)

Merkley also touted the success of community initiatives – better known as earmarks – in helping rural areas add infrastructure.

He cited as an example his work with U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden to allocate nearly $1 million to the proposed Lifeways behavioral crisis center in Ontario. The state also appropriated more than $5 million for the project.

Merkley said it is time for Congress to approve the Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act.

“Now it’s a question of should we do it or not and I think we should,” said Merkley.

The legislation is awaiting final approval by the U.S. Senate. The legislation would protect more than a million acres of public lands in Malheur County under a wilderness area designation but allow ranchers and other local stakeholders to operate in those protected areas.

During the meeting, Vale resident Lucy Hutchinson asked about the U.S.-Mexico border and the fate of thousands of children who were stranded or orphaned because of immigration challenges.

Merkley replied by talking about the problems at the border, including how the asylum process for immigrants “has really broken down over the past years.”

Ontario resident and scientist Clint Shock asks U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, about stalled drug trials on plant-based medicines during a town hall session, Friday, May 17, in Vale. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL)

“We need to be able to have asylum hearings in a much more timely way,” he said.

Merkley also vowed to continue to work to get the prices dropped for many drugs.

Steve Jensen, the chief executive officer for Lifeways, thanked Merkley for his effort to acquire the federal funding for the crisis center. Jensen said Lifeways will break ground on the project later this year.

One audience member asked when voters would see Merkley on the stage of a presidential debate.

“Never,” said Merkley.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

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