The fallout from the prolonged fiscal crisis in Sacramento is not limited to bruised feelings on both sides of the political divide or to the governor and his supporters, who took turns blaming each other for the two-month delay in passing the budget. It has also left deep footprints on an array of social services throughout California as nonprofit groups and municipal and county agencies scramble to find creative ways to serve their constituencies in the face of massive cuts to these services.
Along with deep reductions to mental health programs, another casualty of the budget battles this summer was funding for the homeless. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger slashed $527 million from the state rolls that would have funded legislation such as Assembly Bill (AB) 2034, which provides funds to help homeless and mentally ill on a long-term basis.
Recently, homeless and mental health proponents have learned that there is a possibility of a one-time funding source that would not altogether eliminate the state subsidy.
“My understanding is that the state has identified money for this year, but we don’t know what will happen next year,” said Santa Monica health and services manager Judy Rusk. Without this funding, Westside shelters would lose approximately 70 beds, Rusk added.
Proposition 63, which was passed by the electorate in 2004, provides funding to counties to expand services and programs for mentally ill children, adults and seniors. Many of the more chronic members of the homeless also suffer from mental disabilities, so the two services are often intertwined.
Los Angeles County, which administers the nation’s largest public mental health system, is slated to receive more than $125 million from Proposition 63 this year. But due to a $70-million shortfall in the county budget, many of those who depend on these services have been forced to stand in line for long periods of time.
“We have people coming in and we have to say: ‘I’m sorry, you’re not sick enough. But when you get really sick, come back and see us,'” Marvin J. Southard, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health told the Los Angeles Times recently. “It’s ridiculous. But that’s the situation we find ourselves in.”
It is essential for service providers like the Santa Monica-based CLARE Foundation which, since the 1960s, has provided a variety of assistance to the homeless and indigent seeking recovery from alcoholism and substance abuse, and municipal agencies like the Santa Monica city government to have an idea what their funding will be at least a year in advance.
“Unlike other funding, many of the cuts that occur in these programs vary from year to year,” Rusk explained. “The nature of the population that we serve and the nature of the funding makes it difficult to plan from year to year, especially if there are going to be major funding cuts.”
Schwarzenegger’s decision to eliminate funding for a successful $55-million program for the homeless mentally ill — which was seen by many as the program that served as the model for Proposition 63 — has caused even more anxiety among service providers and their clients. Advocates say the cutbacks violate the new law, which specifically forbids the state from dropping below the funding commitment it had made to mental health before Proposition 63.
Health services managers and homeless advocates are not unaccustomed to losing funding for their programs, especially during times of fiscal crisis, but losing money for highly-regarded initiatives like Proposition 63 is especially difficult, Rusk said.
“It has been very successful in getting people the care that they need and in getting some of our chronic homeless off the streets,” she said.
Elizabeth Benson-Forer, chief executive officer of the Venice Family Clinic, feels that social services are often the first to be offered on the budget chopping block because those who need these services the most have virtually no political clout, therefore making it politically inconsequential for lawmakers to gut or eliminate them.
“It might be because they feel that the constituency that benefits from these funds is more invisible to them, they are able to make drastic cuts to these programs,” she said. “It really destabilizes a group of people who are already having a hard time anyway.”
Proposition 63 is envisioned as a mechanism that will offer those who suffer from emotional conditions that often leave them homeless a safe haven where patients can receive job, housing and educational assistance, in addition to getting necessary attention to their medical needs.
But for now, municipal agencies, counties and nonprofit services providers will continue to struggle with the ever-increasing demand of a population which, as Benson-Forer says, is all but invisible to many.