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Breakdown: Proposed budget cuts could drastically alter local services

By Amanda Waldroupe, Staff Writer

Homeless and low-income advocates, service providers, and policymakers were put on notice when the Republican-controlled — and Tea Party infused — House of Representatives released it’s budget last month.

The House budget plan would cut $61 billion in discretionary spending (which does not include defense spending or entitlement programs, such as Social Security). That includes $5.5 billion from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, and more than $1 billion, almost half the budget, for maintaining aging public housing units. Funding to Planned Parenthood and public broadcasting would be completely eliminated, and programs paying for substance-abuse treatment, mental-health care, low-income housing programs, education programs for the poor, and senior and disabled programs all are on the chopping block. The cuts being proposed are not snips and trims, but program-altering gouges that service providers say will fundamentally change how the safety net operates and serves vulnerable populations.

The House’s budget passed on Feb. 19, but failed to gain enough support in the Senate. However, President Barack Obama’s proposed budget, supported by Democrats and cutting $10 billion, hasn’t garnered enough support to pass in the Senate, either. Meanwhile, stop-gap budgets passed in the House continue to chip away at funding. It could be months before a settlement is reached, and everyone with a dog in the fight is bracing for significant cuts to safety-net programs.

“It will be devastating,” says Jean DeMaster, the executive director of the social service agency Human Solutions. “Huge numbers of people” will not be able to have their basic needs of food, shelter, and safety met.

“The problem is not going to show up today,” DeMaster says. But consider a child in the first grade, who becomes homeless, and may not be able to participate in an after-school program that would help him or her keep their grades up. “They don’t graduate from high school, then they don’t get jobs,” DeMaster says. “(The problem) does show up eventually.”

The work Portland and Multnomah County have done through the 10-year plan to end homelessness and other efforts to address homelessness and poverty has focused on creating a social-service system that does not duplicate services, is collaborative, efficient, and streamlined.

“We’ve done a lot of work over the last five years to try to align what we have in terms of support services,” says Mary Li, Multnomah County’s manager of community services.

Think of Portland and Multnomah County’s social services as a Jenga puzzle. Each Jenga block represents a specific piece of the safety net — alcohol and drug treatment services, mental health counseling, case management, the shelter system, transitional housing, low-income rental housing, etc. Pull out an essential block, and the tower collapses. Advocates and service providers say the tower that is Portland and Multnomah County’s social safety net will become dangerously close to falling down if the federal government makes drastic cuts to even one piece making up the safety net.

“It creates this danger when one is radically defunded or changed, it changes the whole system,” Li says. “It’s the system now being jeopardized, not just a funding source.”

City Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the Portland Housing Bureau, and Housing Bureau Director Margaret Van Vliet sent a letter to the White House on Jan. 5 asking that funding for Community Development Block Grants be preserved (see below). “This funding is essential to maintain the safety net,” they wrote.

Here are seven programs that would be affected by the federal budget cuts, and in one case (the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF), a program effected by Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber’s budget.

In some cases, the programs would be completely defunded. It ranges from housing programs, to addiction treatment programs, that programs that provide assistance to people simply because they earn extremely low incomes. There are many other programs that will be effected by any drastic federal budget cut, but this gives an overview of what’s at stake—and who will be effected.

Sally Erickson, Portland’s ending homelessness program manager, points out that there are “flaps” at the federal level every year regarding whether safety net services will be cut. “This year, it seems a little scarier,” she says.

Li says the safety net could be defunded so drastically that “you can’t really deliver anything” in terms of services. People will not only be unable to access services, but there won’t be staff to give those services, either.

Blackburn says there will not be a way to recover from having the safety net cut so deeply. The damage will be irreparably permanent. As an example, he points to low-income apartment complexes, which have rental subsidies paid for by federal funding (such as the Community Development Block Grants).

“Those buildings are not going to sit empty,” he says. “They’re going to be converted to some other use or torn down.”

By not providing housing, food, job skills, and other basic needs to the poorest of the poor now, what will our society look like 20 or 30 years from now?

“The community will pay for these decisions in terms of increased stress on emergency services, increased incidents of violence, and increased crime associated with people who are not getting into treatment services. You will have police running around trying to solve problems that we were trying to solve. You are going to have a lot more people dying,” Blackburn says. “It’s going to be shameful.”

Blackburn brings up the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, gets to see what his community, Bedford Falls, becomes if he didn’t exist. Bedford Falls’ banker and resident slumlord, Henry Potter, essentially takes over the town and turns the affordable housing Bailey was building into slums, naming it Pottersville. People’s lives become desperate, miserable.

“We’re all kind of like Jimmy Stewart,” Blackburn says. “We jumped off the bridge. We went to Pottersville, and we got to see what the world would be like. We might end up like Pottersville.”

Community Development Block Grants (CDBG): Community Development Block Grants are federal monies given directly to local jurisdictions, such as the City of Portland. The block grants pay for a wide variety of services aiding low-income and homeless people. In 2010, the City of Portland and local jurisdictions received $10.8 million. $1.3 million is being used for homelessness and housing assistance programs, says Sally Erickson, the manager of the Portland Housing Bureau’s ending homelessness program.

Proposed federal budget cut: $2.5 billion

Oregon’s share: $24.8 million

Impacts: The money helped fund rent assistance and housing placement services, the shelters Transitions Projects, Inc. operates, Section 8 housing, and 211, Multnomah County’s social services hotline. “Portland uses most of its Community Development money for housing,” says Margaret Van Vliet, the director of the Portland Housing Bureau. Cuts in Block Grant money means there will also be less rent assistance, less housing rehabilitation, and development. “There will be more people experiencing homelessness,” Erickson says.

Program: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF):  TANF provides cash assistance to low-income families with dependent children. To qualify, families must have very few assets and little or no income. 30,000 Oregonian families are currently receiving TANF benefits. The current maximum monthly benefit for a family of three is $506. The program requires that members of the family actively strive to be self-sufficient, whether that means they are seeking employment, obtaining job skills, in a vocational program, etc. The goal is to reduce the number of families living in poverty. Families can receive TANF assistance for a total of 60 months (or five years).

State budget cut: $12 million by shortening the time limit a person can be on TANF to 18 months, effective October 2011.

Impacts: “That is a big change,” says Gene Evans, the spokesperson for Oregon’s Department of Human Services. “It would hit 7,000 families. TANF is available only to extremely low-income families. For many people, TANF is their only source of income. In some cases, there’d be households of families with dependent children whose income would go to zero.”

HOME Investment Partnership Funds: The Portland Housing Bureau uses these federal funds to build and rehabilitate affordable rental housing for low-income individuals and families, provide short-term rent assistance to prevent low-income families and individuals from being evicted, home ownership programs, transitional housing, and emergency shelter programs.

Proposed federal budget cut: $175 million, or 9.6 percent.

Oregon’s share: $2.1 million

Impacts: Van Vliet thinks that if federal funding from the Housing Bureau’s budget were cut as much as 20 percent, “we could absorb that.” But beyond that, the Housing Bureau would have to severely scale back the number of future projects it undertakes, whether those projects are rehabs or existing buildings, or funding new rental housing development. “What always gets cut is rental housing development,” Van Vliet says. “(But) that’s what we need in the long run to make long-term, sustainable headway in the housing shortage.”

Program: Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP): LIHEAP is a federally funded program providing low-income families the cash assistance needed to pay utility billsСincluding heating, electricity, gas, and sometimes cooling bills. Multnomah County received a total of $4.8 million dollars this year to provide utility assistance to approximately 20,000 people. In many cases, preventing utilities from being disconnected also means preventing eviction, as an increasing number of landlords are putting clauses in their rental agreements utilities have to be on in order to lease the apartment.

Proposed federal budget cut: All funding eliminated.

Impacts: If funding is completely eliminated, of course, no one will be able to receive utility assistance. If the budget is cut in half as the president’s budget proposes, approximately 7,000 to 8,000 people will receive assistance, says Mary Li, Multnomah County’s manager of community services. DeMaster says people without utilities, if not evicted, tend to light or heat their apartments with candles, meaning there is more danger of fires. “Having heat and electricity is a health and safety issue,” DeMaster says. “It makes kids subject to getting colds or ear infections. It makes seniors more likely like to get serious illnesses like pneumonia. For kids in school, you can’t do homework if you don’t have light in your apartment.”

Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC): The WIC program is a public health and nutrition service for  low-income pregnant women, breastfeeding women with infants younger than 12 months, non-breastfeeding women with children under 6 months, and children under 5. Food assistance is provided to qualifying families and individuals in poverty.The food assistance is targeted to the specific health and nutrition needs of the individual being served, and can include dairy products, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. .

Proposed federal budget cut: $752 million

Oregon’s share: Unknown

Impacts: Sue Woodbury, the director of Oregon’s WIC program, says approximately 113,000 individuals rely on the program across the state  Woodbury says people currently in the program are not cut if there is a budget cut. “It could impact our ability to serve new applicants,” she says. “We would continue to serve pregnant women and infants,” Woodbury says, but 5-year old children may be eliminated from the program, and other less at-risk groups.

Head Start: Head Start is an education program serving at-risk children under the age of five and is designed to help children successfully enter kindergarten and school. The program provides education, health, nutritional, and other services and also engages the child’s family in the child’s learning. There are 6,554 Oregon children currently participating in Head Start, according to the state Department of Education.

Proposed federal budget cut: $1.1 billion, or 15 percent

Oregon’s share: $11.4 million

Impacts: As many as 2,000 Oregon children could be cut from Head Start. David Mandel, the research director of the Children’s Institute, a public policy organization advocating for at-risk students, points out that Head Start children are at higher risk of not graduating from high school, becoming involved in crime, and are less likely to earn higher incomes. “These kids are only going to be three and four once,” Mandel says. “Even if these cuts get restored, there is a whole cohort of children who we’ve denied a really important opportunity. There are impacts on a child’s trajectory that you can make that are so much easier to make in earlier years than it is later on in their life.”

Substance Abuse and Treatment Block Grant: This grant helps states pay for substance abuse treatment and prevention programs, including case management, counseling, and drug and alcohol free housing.

Proposed federal budget cut: $113 million

Oregon’s share: $312,000

Impacts: Ed Blackburn, the executive director of the housing and recovery service agency Central City Concern, says funding from this grant helps CCC fund Hooper Detox’s sub acute detox center, which serves people with severe addictions to alcohol not only recover from the alcohol in their body, but access treatment services.The money also pays for outpatient treatment slots. He estimates that there will be around 3,000 admissions to the detox center this year. The center is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and Blackburn says it is impossible to simply cut back hours. “These are people who have serious addictions to alcohol and various drugs. It’s not like you get a 10 percent cut and you cut back 10 percent. You can’t say to people in the middle of detox, ‘leave for a few hours and come back,’” Blackburn says.

Community Mental Health Services Block Grant: This grant is used primarily in Multnomah County to provide transitional housing for severely mental ill adults when they are released from the Oregon State Hospital, the state institution for those with severe mental illnesses. The funds Multnomah County receives help pay for the 63 housing units at the Bridgeview, transitional housing for the severely mentally ill.

Proposed federal budget cut: $26 million

Oregon’s share: $1,114,000

Impacts: Karl Brimner, the director of Multnomah County’s mental health programs, says it is possible that the amount of housing available to adults being released from the State Hospital would become limited. Adults could remain at the State Hospital for longer periods of time (the State Hospital would not, he says, discharge adults into homelessness).