U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, called for reforms in federal anti-poverty programs Wednesday and highlighted the story of a 5-year-old girl who lived in Portland’s woods this summer as an example of the gaps in existing programs.

In a floor speech to introduce new legislation, Collins spoke about the struggles of Arianna and her family during the month they spent living in woods behind a Portland strip mall.

They were among dozens of homeless people who were ordered by police to leave the longtime encampment known as Tent City. After struggling to find subsidized housing, the family ultimately rented an apartment in Auburn and moved in without furniture or beds.

Standing beside a large photo of Arianna in front of her family’s tent, Collins noted that Maine’s poverty rate is 13.4 percent and affects both rural and urban families. Such poverty often stunts the potential of children, she said.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is calling for reforms in federal anti-poverty programs. In a floor speech Wednesday to introduce her bill, she highlighted, as an example of the gaps in existing programs, the Maine Sunday Telegram's story about a 5-year-old girl who lived in Portland's woods this summer.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is calling for reforms in federal anti-poverty programs. In a floor speech Wednesday to introduce her bill, she highlighted, as an example of the gaps in existing programs, the Maine Sunday Telegram’s story about a 5-year-old girl who lived in Portland’s woods this summer. Image from video/c-span.org Image from video/c-span.org

“Just this weekend, the Maine Sunday Telegram reported on the heart-wrenching story of a 5-year-old girl named Arianna who lived in a makeshift tent in the woods outside of Portland,” Collins said. “Thanks to the involvement of a state social worker and the Maine Homeless Veterans Alliance, who were committed to keeping the family together, this story has a happy ending. Arianna and her mother now live in an apartment in Auburn, Maine, and she finally just started kindergarten.”

Collins added, “We know that the well-being of children like Arianna is tightly linked to the well-being of their parents.”

The legislation introduced by Collins on Wednesday, the Two-Generation Economic Empowerment Act, is co-sponsored by Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico. It would align and link existing anti-poverty programs and funding streams in an effort to increase economic security, educational issues, social capital, and health and well-being. Such coordination would improve the effectiveness of the programs, Collins said.

The bill would give states, local governments and tribes more flexibility to tailor their programs to meet the needs of their respective communities.

It also would create an Interagency Council on Multigenerational Poverty to coordinate and link programs from more than a dozen federal agencies that deal with transportation, agriculture, housing and labor, among other issues.

The goals of Two-Generation, as it is being called, focus on anti-poverty strategies such as extending the hours for career services and childhood development programs, expanding home visiting programs that provide education and workforce training, and expanding access to education and other services for low-income students who have young children.

The bill also would allow state, local and tribal governments to test new approaches, including so-called Two-Generation Social Impact Bonds, which would allow private investors to lend money to service providers. If those providers met certain goals, then the federal government would repay the loans. If not, the federal government would pay nothing.

The bill also would direct the Government Accountability Office to identify any barriers and opportunities for collaboration for recipients of federal block grants, and would report back to Congress.

“Mr. President, with this bill, we have the chance to make a permanent difference in the lives of millions of families in this country who are struggling and living in poverty,” Collins said. “We have the opportunity to finally break the multi-generational cycle of poverty.”

The story of Arianna and her family prompted an outpouring of support from people who offered to furnish the family’s apartment, pay rent and donate clothes, toys and children’s books.

Arianna’s mother, Chrissy Chavez, 38, wants to go back to school to become a social worker, and her boyfriend, Troy Jethro, 34, has been working temporary jobs – mostly overnight shifts in a warehouse.