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CURRENT ISSUE:  June 22, 2009
VOL. 47, NO. 12   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
 
Catholic hospital officials address healthcare reform
 
Pope calls for more equitable economic model
Specter of social-service cuts has
local charities preparing for the worst
 

California’s budget crisis has area Catholic agencies bracing for impact as proposed cuts to social-services and health care programs for the poor threaten to further increase the demand for charitable assistance from families in need.
Justin, a participant in St. Vincent de Paul’s Champion Work Force Transitional Employment program, secured a job at the Port of Oakland after completing computer classes and other training. Agency leaders say high unemployment rates in the state make it difficult for their participants to find work.
ST. VINCENT DE PAUL PHOTO

Even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who advanced his plan for closing its projected $24.3 billion deficit after voters turned down five of six budget-slashing amendments at the ballot box May 19, has called the proposal “draconian.”

It that is so, then it is perhaps particularly draconian to the state’s poorest and most vulnerable residents, who will find it may fray their social safety net beyond the breaking point.

“I don’t know how it will be worked out eventually, but it’s a huge mess, a huge problem,” said Solomon Belette, chief executive officer for Catholic Charities of the East Bay. “We’re very concerned as an organization, given that our business is in providing services. But the number of people who are going to be in dire need is just going to go up. It has already gone up.”

The numbers tell the story: Requests to Catholic Charities for housing assistance have increased 153 percent over the last fiscal year, and requests for food and clothing have risen more than 300 percent — and that’s before the current round of budget cuts.

The measures proposed by Schwar-zenegger include the dismantling of Cal-Works, a welfare-to-work program that provides temporary financial assistance and employment-focused services to needy families with minor children; and reductions to health-care programs designed to assist the poor, including Healthy Families, which provides medical, dental, and vision care to 90,000 children.
Belette sees such both short-term and long-term repercussions to such drastic action.

“If there’s a cut in CalWorks, that will have tremendous implications for agencies like Catholic Charities because you’re taking away people’s basic survival needs,” he told The Catholic Voice.

“Take away Healthy Families, and that’s health coverage for people at the lowest end of the income spectrum. They’ll go to emergency rooms instead of going to a physician for medical care. Add all these things together, and the impact is going to be very severe.”

It’s a similar story over at the St. Vincent de Paul Society for Alameda County, according to Phil Arca, its executive director, where requests for assistance at its retail stores and its West Oakland dining room have doubled amid a large hike in demand for services over the past year.

The economic downturn and budget crisis create a “ripple effect,” Arca said. “What it does is push the working poor, whose lives were precariously balanced, over the edge.”

One disheartening result of the nation’s economic crisis has been seeing individuals who have completed St. Vincent de Paul’s Transitional Employment Program and gone on to obtain full-time work find themselves back on their doorstep after having been laid off. The program employs some 15 men and women in part-time, three-to-four-month positions and offers job training and placement assistance for those who demonstrate a solid work ethic.

“We’re actually creating pathways to self-sufficiency,” Arca said of the program. “People personally are making positive changes in their lives, moving forward. So it’s a real frustrating thing to see individuals really pull themselves up by the bootstraps and turn their lives around, or at least start walking in the right direction, and then get slammed again by external circumstances.”

If the state balances its budget as proposed, it will reduce state funds available to counties for local social services, forcing local officials to face the same difficult financial decisions. In addition, the state proposes to borrow more for its coffers from local property tax revenue, which further slices available local funds.

In all, Alameda County projects a $70 million impact in addition to its present $178 million deficit, while Contra Costa County officials estimate the state measures will deal them a $33-million shortfall.

Both agencies credit their donors and granting foundations for continued generosity in a time of decreasing investment portfolios, but both also say that maintaining or increasing contribution levels will be key to their ability to weather the worsening economic storm.

Colleen Miller, development and public-affairs director for Catholic Charities, hopes donors will step up to match a “challenge grant” established by a few of its longtime sponsors. “They realize the demands that are upon us, so they gave us $125,000 and have asked our other donors to step up,” she said.

Arca credits the 800 Vincentian volunteers who raise more than $1 million from their own parishes across Alameda County to help the neediest families. Service, he indicated, is where his organization must keep its focus.

“Some things are in your control, and some aren’t. . . . I don’t tell the governor what to do,” he said. “All we can do with our organization, our volunteers and our resources is to help people. It’s really a person-by-person effort.”

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