These are telling snippets of conversations I have had with human service providers about the recession, the shredding social safety net, and local help for people in need:
“For the most youth, the streets are the safest choice … and I think that’s a pretty reasonable choice given the circumstances.”
“For many of our seniors, we’re giving them their only hot meal of the day.”
“We see a lot more people living out of their cars.”
“We check the jail registry, the morgue … no news is good news.”
I heard these comments because, in trying to think about how government and society should respond to hard times, I wanted to know how much the recession had affected the capabilities and the need for services of organizations that help people get what they need to live (i.e. food, shelter) and live well (organic food, green space). Were they able to keep up with demand for services? If not, were they demanding help? Had Occupy Wall Street inspired them to organize? I met with directors of six local human service agencies to find out.
It’s not pretty out there. Executive Director Kristine Cunningham of ROOTS, which provides shelter for young adults, said more college students need shelter, more people are sleeping in their cars, and more people are newly homeless. Rare is the night that ROOTS doesn't turn away people seeking a place to sleep.
Teen Feed, which provides teens with meals and case management, is not seeing more youth, according to Executive Director Megan Hibbard. But the teens it serves now have a harder time finding jobs and housing. Hibbard says, “They are more depressed and more inclined to use drugs. … Our working is changing … now we’re helping kids hang on.” Kathleen Crompton, who runs the Wallingford Senior Center said that her agency’s services have shifted in focus — less attention to bridge games, and more attention to hot meals and job programs.
For the past few years, our elected leaders have been saying we must “sacrifice,” “tighten our belts,” “take a haircut,” and “do our part.” It's Beaver Cleaver-speak for imposing draconian cuts to services for people who have already sacrificed.
When releasing her 2011-2013 budget, which called for eliminating Basic Health and Disability Lifeline, Gov. Chris Gregoire said, “For the functions that government no longer will be able to provide, we must turn to neighbors, private charities, faith-based organizations and other local programs. Our communities, more than ever, will be asked to step up.”
How? The nonprofit directors I met said that finding the resources they need to meet the demand for services has always been a struggle, recession or not. For many nonprofits it’s getting harder: Government has radically cut or eliminated funding to the very organizations that poor people turn to when they cannot get unemployment insurance, subsidized health insurance, food stamps, or other governmental aid. Individual donors have less to donate; foundations give fewer grants; communities have fewer foundations. The state Senate’s adoption of a draconian budget proposal adds to this mix the prospect of more cuts before the Legislature’s special session ends. To whom or to what do charities turn to protect current funding levels (never mind the “extra” funding needed to “step up”)?
Occupiers? Perhaps, they could turn to the Occupy movement. The grassroots activists' community organizing has re-focused our national analysis of the economy (from reducing the deficit to reducing the income gap); inspired people across the U.S. to engage in activism, and pressured banks and corporations to change how they do business.
What if, in 2012, safety net providers take a cue from OWS and utilize protests to demand that the 1 percent “do their part” for the public good? That would be a big departure from what most service providers currently do. Media coverage of protests in Olympia over the past year suggests that they were for the most part, the work of unions, Occupy groups, and some nonprofit advocacy organizations. This is consistent with my 25 years of experience in the nonprofit sector. Few direct service providers engage in ongoing advocacy; almost none engage in organizing.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!