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Travis County seeing surge in need for social services

Thursday, February 26, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

Travis County commissioners Tuesday accelerated a $450,000 budget item for the Health and Human Services department to be applied to existing programs rather than a request for services process planned for August. The change in plans comes as the county sees a significant increase in the number of citizens applying for social services.


HHS Executive Manager Sherri Fleming said her department can now “amend the existing contracts to get money to agencies quicker rather than drafting proposal documents, leave it on the street 45 days or so and then go through a process of selection and award.”


In November, Fleming said HHS staff made a series of presentations across the community and worked with Austin Area Human Services Association, Community Action Network, the Basic Needs Coalition and a number of other similar organizations. Fleming said originally, “the intent was for staff to look at potential for staff to look at RFS (request for service) for agencies to submit proposals to receive a portion of the money.”


Fleming said the county has increased the number of social service clients, “every month since August of last year, with the exception of November. We have seen a significant upward trend in the number of persons presenting for services and receiving services,” she told commissioners, “with January being sort of an all-time high at 96 percent increase.”


Commissioners also learned that the children’s health insurance program is reporting an increase in demand at 34 percent. Food stamps are up too. Even factoring for Hurricane Ike refugees, Fleming said, “we still are experiencing about a 50 percent increase in the number of persons who are receiving food stamps in our community over January of 2008.”


The HHS department has been combing through school records which Fleming says show that “enrollment has gone up a little over 10 percent, but the number of students who will be classified as economically disadvantaged has grown by 19 percent.” She said the department is trying to get out more information about food stamps to those who may be eligible, in order to maximize the benefits.


Fleming characterized Tuesday’s presentation as “option two” and suggested the court instead dole out the money through existing channels and social agencies. She said existing providers would get a 10 percent increase in the amount Travis County gives, totaling $76,000. Another $80,000 would go to the Basic Needs Coalition, a conglomeration of 35 different agencies that provide food, utility assistance and housing.


In addition to the county’s budgeted money, Fleming is optimistic that the stimulus money will have a greater impact on social services for Travis County than it will for transportation. “We are very hopeful about stimulus money,” she said, “we’re encouraged by the dollars that may come down established funding services,” especially competitive grants.


In regards to the funds, Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt said although she has sympathy for those in foreclosure, “I want it to be clear that this particular pot of money we are (allocating) toward those who are the absolutely most vulnerable. Most likely, renters.” She said such requests would be more appropriate for the next budgeting cycle. Judge Sam Biscoe then surmised, “if in fact the lines are long [for Travis County services], it seems to me we ought to figure out a way to make the funds available to address these needs as soon as possible. That really means increasing contracts with social services providers already on board.”


Final approval of the allocation will be on next week’s agenda.

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