Social services are barely surviving, or closing

Even high-visibility programs like Habitat for Humanity, which drew help from President and Mrs. Obama, are struggling to maintain existing levels of service. Credit: Pete Souza, White House press office/via Wikimedia Commons

The Safe Havens domestic-violence visitation center in Kent was in danger of permanently closing in April after state and county budget reductions left a $130,000 hole in its 2010 budget. Safe Havens employees received a notice from the city indicating that the center would close if it didn’t have at least $50,000 in the bank and an additional $50,000 secured by April 30.

After a temporary closure, the community responded with $54,000 in donations and officials agreed to reopen Safe Havens, which provides a safe place for court-ordered parental visits, for the rest of the year, hoping that its employees would have a long-term sustainability plan in place by 2011.

The Safe Havens project supervisor, Tracee Parker, is grateful the community pitched in, but wishes help could have arrived sooner.

“People don’t pay a whole lot of attention until you’re really on the chopping block,” she said. “When we got to that point where we got the notice in our hands . . . then everybody kind of kicked into gear. It took us a while to get the press release out, so really it wasn’t until the 24th of April when the media picked up on it. That last week things were just crazy. We had no idea whether we were going to make it.”

Parker said Safe Havens doesn’t qualify for a lot of private monies. She has been working on collecting more donations, applying for grants, and seeking a community nonprofit agency to partner with for the long-term.

Many human-service agency representatives want to get the word out that they need help before they’re stuck in a situation like Safe Haven found itself.

Kathy Jeffrey of the King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence (KCCADV) said domestic-violence services are slowly disappearing.

“Many services that are vital to helping victims of domestic violence get back on their feet are being cut back or have already been cut back or closed,” she said. “The Welfare Rights Organizing Coalition for one, the Alcohol and Drug Helpline DV Outreach Project is another that have completely closed their doors at this point. Many legal services have closed or limited the services they provide to victims of domestic violence over the past few years, such as Eastside Legal Assistance Program, so there is little free or low-cost legal help available.”

Merill Cousin, the executive director of KCCADV, said agencies are cutting back where they can. Many have frozen staff salaries, cut services, instituted pay cuts and delayed filling open positions.

But this trend is spanning all human-service agencies, not just those for domestic violence victims. Seattle’s branch of Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit agency that builds affordable housing for low-income families, has had to do away with multiple building projects because funds are lacking.

According to Habitat’s Director of Development, Sandra Lynch Holmes, public investments for housing will be virtually nonexistent for the next two years. Furthermore, she said, individual donations are currently down in both the number of donors and the amounts they are willing to give.

“Financing is difficult,” Holmes said. “How we raise funds here in terms of donations (is a) very layered approach. It’s a miracle when one donor walks in and helps to fund one house. We struggle to kind of keep things balanced and moving forward all the time.”

Due to the cutbacks, the Habitat staff had to cancel some of their housing projects and delay others. Additionally, in order to lower operating costs, some workers have been laid off.

Our food bank … this year served the highest weekly averages in many years. Most of that increase is due to homeless asking for food and, more recently, by several families with children registering with us. — John Morford, Blessed Sacrament’s food bank in Seattle

Habitat Chief Executive Officer Marty Kooistra doesn’t think things will be looking up any time soon.

“I have yet to hear anybody who I would consider full of sage wisdom say that things will ever go back to where they were,” he said. “And I think that’s a shock to a lot of people who are thinking this is just a temporary little setback. We need to really figure out strategically what do we as an organization look like and what do we want to be doing as we come out of this.”

John Morford, who runs the Blessed Sacrament food bank in Seattle’s University District, said people need help in more areas now, mainly housing.

“Our food bank … this year served the highest weekly averages in many years,” he said. “Most of that increase is due to homeless asking for food and, more recently, by several families with children registering with us. The big change for our St. Vincent de Paul Conference has been the dramatic increase in requests for help with rent or mortgage payments — most of these are for rentals in the many rooming houses in the Roosevelt and U districts.”

Morford said his parishioners, community donors and government agencies have continued to be outstanding financial supporters of the food bank, but he isn’t sure whether government monies will continue in the face of deficits. Additionally, he said that grocery stores have considerably cut the amount of food they donate to the bank due to economic setbacks.

For example, Morford said last year Blessed Sacrament received four or five times more loaves of bread each week than they could use. In the past few months, there has rarely been enough to give a loaf to each client, and the staff has had to buy bread for its Sunday dinners.

For Jeffrey of the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, years of pressure on organizations are adding up. “The reality is that cuts have been happening for years now and organizations have been chipping away at their services and managing to stay open in spite of it,” she said. “But with the enormous shortfalls we are seeing now, I believe many programs will be in danger of closing and the general public is not aware of the consequences.

“Closures might have been prevented if people were aware, but getting people to the level of awareness that motivates them to act takes a lot of education and community engagement, which often takes a lot of time and money — which is what these programs don’t have. So there lies the dilemma.”

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