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Recession is hitting local social service providers

Thursday, July 2, 2009 by Michael Mmay

As Austin and Travis County officials consider budget priorities, they’re facing smaller budgets and a significant increase in demand for social services.


And this doesn’t simply affect city and county programs. The local governments provide significant funding to nonprofit groups like Caritas and Lifeworks, which are on the front lines helping residents in need. Beth Atherton, the executive director of Caritas and the chair of the Austin Area Human Services Association, says that they have seen a 500 percent increase in eligible requests for rent and utility assistance so far this year (compared to the first five months of 2008). “In tight times, our goal is to prevent homelessness,” Atherton says. “There are people that are always on the edge, and they are really struggling right now. But we’re also seeing new people coming in who have never needed services before and are asking for the first time.” (Caritas has a $6.5 million budget, and about 60 percent comes from local, state and federal funding.)


In January, Travis County increased its budget for social services for the first time in ten years, by $400,000. The county provides direct assistance to residents at seven local community centers. The budget for services has been increased to $1,367,980. Still, Andrea Colunga Bussey, the director of Family Support Services for Travis County Health and Human Services, says they need more to keep up with demand. “We’ve already had to add additional dollars,” she says. “And I’ll be asking the Commissioners Court for more money for next year.”


The county and the city would be in a much worse situation if not for federal stimulus dollars. The county has gotten $3 million for their Comprehensive Energy Assistance Program. The program helps people pay their energy bills, which has been very useful with the current heat wave. Federal dollars have also been supporting the county’s weatherization program, which helps people pay their energy bills,  as well as lowering energy use overall in Central Texas and providing the “green jobs” that everyone’s been talking about.


The city’s services have also gotten a significant boost from Washington, at just the right time. The Health and Human Services Department, like all city departments, has presented a menu of potential budget cuts, including around $450,000 of unallocated reserve that is used for social services. However, the feds have given the department $3 million for homelessness prevention and rapid rehousing, which it plans to spend over the next two years.  The formal approval for the money is expected in August, and they will start spending it in October.  “On the one hand, we have increased needs and have to cut the budget,” said David Lurie, the director of Austin/Travis Health and Human Services. “But we’re also getting the stimulus dollars, so that’s helped mitigate the budget shortfall.”


The county and the city work together to provide social services, and more and more of the work is contracted out to nonprofit agencies. A number of major service groups funded by local government have come together under the Basic Needs Coalition of Central Texas, which helps steer people in need to the organization that can help them best (called “The Best Single Source Program”). The groups can then use city and county money to leverage support for their programs. “We’ve gotten better results partnering with these organizations,” said Lurie. “We’ve had a lot of success in recent years getting people in stable situations.”

Austin/Travis Health and Human Services is also working on job training efforts to help people through tough situations by helping them find work. The federal stimulus funds can also go towards these efforts, which ideally help attract employers looking for a trained workforce. “We’re trying to anticipate the jobs of the future,” said Lurie. “Green jobs are part of that, but we also want a balance of industries. The goal is create a sustainable economy in Austin.”

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