Friday, March 9, 2012

The Budget Battle to Fund Human need in FY 2013 Has Begun

This post is an addendum to "The Homeless Mentality: A Need for Love and Empowerment" which is 2 blog post below this one.

I was ABSOLUTELY PLEASED by what I heard DC Councilman Jim Graham (who has oversight of the Human Services Committee) say at a hearing on March 1st, 2012. I was firmly convinced that he was extremely passionate about fighting for the city's poorest and most vulnerable citizens. It's safe to assume that others in the hearing chamber felt the same way. But, before I explain what was so admirable about the councilman's performance, let me describe the worsening crisis that he was responding to.

It's budget season again for DC Government. Same song, different verse. Mayor Vincent Gray (who was the director of the Dept. of Human Services at one time and ran a homeless shelter) is threatening to make deep, hurtful cuts to the human services budget -- in typical mayoral fashion. This is a trend which advocates for the poor and homeless have become all too familiar with. Of greatest concern is the fact that Mayor Gray wants to cut funding for TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) by 25%. Needy families which have been on TANF for at least 5 years will have their monthly benefits decreased from $320/month to $240/month on October 1st, 2012 if the mayor has his way.

In April 2011, TANF benefits were cut by 20% from $400/month to $320/month for families which have received it for at least 5 years. It was said that benefits would be cut by another 20% on October 1st, 2011 (the beginning of FY 2012) and this pattern would continue every year thereafter until these needy families receive nothing. However, people came out in force during April and May of 2011, after the mayor issued his proposed budget for FY 2012, to speak out against these and other hurtful cuts to social services.

The DC Council (which votes to approve the mayor's budget and can make adjustments to it) conceded to some of the advocates' demands, suspending the TANF cuts for one year and back-pedaling on other proposed cuts to social services. They found $17 million to almost completely fill the gap for the projected $20.5-million budget shortfall for homeless services. The plans to close all city-run shelters on April 1st 2012 have been reversed. The city will continue to operate year-round shelter as opposed to just sheltering the homeless for the 5 coldest months of the year -- November 1st through March 31st. All of this just goes to show that people DO have power if they organize.

Now back to the March 1st, 2012 hearing. As Councilman Jim Graham discussed the impact of the proposed TANF cuts with Dept. of Human Services Director David Berns, he was clearly upset by the mayor's decision. He passionately stated how that he and the director, both of whom make comfortable salaries, would be upset if their pay were cut by 25%; while, the mayor wants to decrease the income of needy families by 25%. He promised to fight the proposed cuts to the bitter end.

Councilman Graham asked Director Berns about his plans to assist TANF recipients in finding employment. Director Berns stated his plans to assist the heads of households in finding employment, even if it's only part-time. Mr. Berns didn't seem to think that he could assist the poor in finding full-time living-wage jobs; but, was hopeful that he COULD help families to at least find enough work to make up for the $80/month that they may soon lose in TANF benefits. (One would hope that any part-time job paid more than $80/month, not to speak of the transportation and other costs associated with going to work.) This speaks volumes to the fact that many people will never make enough money to hold their own. There are people who will always need SOME help -- even with their best efforts. Government should plan accordingly.

But the poor and homeless community of DC shouldn't be surprised by the fact that a mayor with a history in human services would forsake the needy after becoming mayor. They felt the same way after Adrian Fenty became mayor. While a councilman, Fenty had oversight of Human Services. While functioning in that capacity, he did his job well -- so well that advocates were able to get large numbers of homeless people to attend events associated with his transition to the office of mayor. A year and a half into Fenty's term as mayor, the poor and homeless were grossly disappointed with him for a variety of reasons. But, to his credit, he actually began 2 housing programs before closing 2 shelters (though 1 program has since lost its funding and the other is not without funding troubles). Vincent Gray (whom many thought would be better than Fenty) has proven to be more willing than his predecessor to throw the poor to the wolves insomuch as he has proposed to defund social programs without creating any other forms of assistance.

The proposed cuts to TANF for FY 2013, his proposal last year to scale back shelter to only 5 months per year and the myriad of other hurtful cuts which he proposed last year give us a window into the mind of the mayor. Advocates have begun to worry and to organize in earnest and fight against other hurtful budget cuts which we may find out about as early as March 13th or as late as March 23rd. The mayor's behavior toward the poor is cause for concern. The fact that this is being done by someone knows the in's and out's of human services only adds insult to injury.

But, it doesn't stop there. Mayor Gray plans to complete his budget early this year. By DC Law, he must publish his budget for Fiscal Year 2013 by April 1st, 2012. In past years the advocates have waited until AFTER April 1st to respond to his budget. But, following last year's budget cycle, the advocacy community determined that we needed to change our ways by giving our input during the writing of the budget. This year we did just that. In response, the mayor decided to publish his budget by March 23rd. Then he said it would be done by March 10th. He then had to add 3 days; because, the March 10th date proved to be a little too ambitious. It is safe to assume that he has chosen to publish his budget as early as possible so as to give the advocacy community the least amount of time possible to give their input. Mayor Vincent Gray is a slick one -- to be sure.

On Saturday, February 11th, 2012, DC Mayor Vincent Gray held his "One City Summit", which was ostensibly for the purpose of finding out what Washingtonians felt needed to be done to make this one unified city that serves people of all economic strata. Through instant polling that took place at the event, approximately 2,000 people indicated that their primary concern was the lack of affordable housing in the city. Since that event, I've been to several meetings where I saw people galvanizing around the fact that so many city residents are demanding the creation of affordable housing -- the lack of which is the primary reason for homelessness in the U.S. There are many working people in the city who are on the verge of becoming homeless. This speaks volumes to the fact that people are not necessarily homeless due to laziness or some other personal vice; but rather, many are homeless due to the lack of affordable housing combined with the lack of a living wage.

Unfortunately, neither of the last 2 mayors this city has seen (both of whom have histories working in human services) has demonstrated the political will or determination to create affordable housing in DC. Fenty made a token effort by creating an affordable housing task force. The chairperson of that task force lacked sufficient authority to do the job and he quit in less than a year. His position remained unfilled for the remainder of Fenty's term. Gray has said he would create an affordable housing task force. Can anyone guess how that might go?

All of this makes it more important now than ever for DC's poor and homeless community to take heart, as people all over the city are beginning to galvanize around the need for affordable housing. It was recently suggested to me that leading a successful campaign amongst the homeless to have all disrespectful staff fired would show the homeless how much power they really DO have and would energize them for the much bigger fight to create affordable housing. I fully agree.

The local fight is not the only one for which the homeless need to be empowered though. I was recently contacted by someone from Capitol Hill and am now working with the staff of Congressman John Conyers to create 2 pieces of legislation -- one that will create jobs and job training for all and another that will create housing for women, children and families. I'll soon need many people to rally behind me and apply pressure to Congress to pass this legislation.

So, if it takes too long for the homeless to reach down deep inside of themselves and find the abdominal fortitude to join the fight, they'll miss the boat. It's time to empower the homeless for "the lion's last stand" -- the final battle. I would hope that they choose to "take heart and take part". At the end of the day, the question is: "Will the homeless merely fight for their daily sustenance or fight for the necessary systemic change?" So, if you love the homeless, don't just feed them. Empower them to be the change they want and need to see in the world.

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