In southwest Va., as more need help, aid organization has less to give

April 16, 2011

The destitute people who line up outside her office are asking for more help than ever. The organization where she works has less than ever to give. It falls on Denise Hancock to navigate the chasm in between, so she rubs her forehead, opens her office door and calls out into the waiting room. “Come on in,” she says.

The first client this morning at the Pulaski Community Action office is a young woman with tangled hair and smudged eyeliner, a single mother of two who lost her job at Shoney’s restaurant. “You’re my last resort,” she says, handing over a piece of paper stamped, “Urgent: Termination Notice.” It is an electric bill for $510.15 with full payment due immediately. “Can you help me?” she asks.

Hancock purses her lips, already knowing what will come next. She punches numbers into a calculator and then begins the same conversation she will have 14 more times on this day alone.

“I’m really sorry,” she says. “All we can afford to give right now is $35.”

This is how Hancock spends her days: caught in a constant tug-of-war between competing economic disasters. She works for an emergency assistance program in a town where one-third of people live in poverty and a record number rely on food stamps. While the talk in Washington and on Wall Street is about signs of economic recovery, people here in southwest Virginia come to Hancock’s office seeking the basics for survival: Food. Shelter. Work. Formula for a newborn. Medication for a failing heart.


(Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)

At a time of such high demand, poverty-assistance programs across the country are facing a financial crisis of their own. Hancock’s organization, which totals four employees in a rundown, two-story house, is almost out of money. Local businesses that once donated thousands each month have yet to donate a single dollar this year. As the national deficit continues to skyrocket, federal and state governments are proposing the most severe budget cuts to social service programs in decades, threatening to reduce spending by 50 percent or more.

Now Hancock, a 43-year-old single woman with no savings account, worries about much more than how much money is left to give. She also worries about losing her own job.

But she is still employed on this day, at least, and now the young mother in her office begins to plead.

“Ma’am, only $35?” she says. “That’s not gonna make a dent. How can we survive with no heat, no stove, no washing machine, no microwave?”

“Okay, honey. Okay,” Hancock says. “Let’s take a look and see what we can do.”

She logs onto her computer, which contains a database of all 2,799 people who have come into this office for help in the last six months. The emergency assistance program has existed in Pulaski for almost 50 years, but only recently has the caseload started to grow by a few hundred people each month.

“I have a few standard questions that I have to ask for our records,” Hancock tells the young mother. “Is your income still zero?”

“Yes.”

“Still getting food stamps?”

“Yes.

“Still providing for all three people in the house?”

“Yes.”

Hancock studies the woman’s file. Outside the door, she can hear other voices in the waiting room, where the characters change but the conversation never does. The only topic that matters in Pulaski, a town of 9,000, is what has been lost: 3,000 textile jobs in the last decade, the Wal-Mart, the Main Street barbershop and all eight restaurants downtown. What remains are mostly vacated furniture factories with busted-out windows, churches, pawnshops and a food kitchen for the poor where Hancock herself eats lunch because it helps cut back on expenses. Only a year ago, the emergency assistance office routinely handed out $1,000 in vouchers each week. Now it has less than $1,000 total in its bank account until more donations come in.

“I’m sorry,” Hancock says, finally. “But $35 is the best we can do.”

“We’re going to be out on the street,” the woman says.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Hancock says. “But we’re hurting, too.”

Twenty miles away, at a coffee shop in Blacksburg, Va., Hancock’s boss works on a math problem of her own. Terry Smusz, the executive director of New River Community Action, runs 11 poverty-assistance organizations in southwest Virginia on an annual budget of $7 million. Now she studies a pie chart illustrating the sources of her 2010 funding, three-quarters of which is in doubt. “All these pieces of the pie are just disappearing,” she says.

Fifteen percent of her budget is federal stimulus money, a one-time influx that will be spent by this summer.

Seven percent is state funding, which the Virginia General Assembly voted to cut by more than 60 percent a few weeks earlier.

Two percent is private donations, which have declined to record lows.

Forty-eight percent comes from the federal budget, all at stake as Democrats and Republicans make proposals to Congress that would drastically change how the country fights poverty.

For 30 years, the federal government has funded poverty-assistance programs through the Community Services Block Grant, which distributes money to individual states that divide their share among thousands of local organizations. The grant demands minimal federal oversight, and some politicians have long disparaged it as wasteful or inefficient. But never before has it been targeted like this.

“This is the hardest time we’ve ever had financially,” Smusz says. “Everyone is tightening up, which creates a huge trickledown effect.”

The trickledown began in January, when President Obama, confronted with a staggering $14 trillion in national debt, announced during his State of the Union address that his 2012 budget would include “cuts to things I care deeply about, for example community action programs in low-income neighborhoods.” A former community organizer in Chicago, Obama proposed eliminating the $700 million block grant program and replacing it with $350 million in competitive grants, meaning some programs would receive nothing as early as next year.

That news spread to a network of 1,065 community action agencies across the country, where directors said they would be forced to lay off employees, close job training centers and shutter homeless shelters if Obama’s budget cuts are approved by Congress later this year. In existence since 1964, the Community Action Partnership worked with more than 20 million people last year when a record 15 percent of Americans lived in poverty.

One of those 1,065 directors, Smusz, called a meeting with her financial advisers to discuss worst-case scenarios, including one that would involve closing the entire agency within two years. “This would fundamentally change who we are and what we do,” she says. Already she has sent an e-mail to her staff warning that “cuts will need to be made to personnel — possibly positions, hours and/or fringe benefits.”

Finally, the trickledown effect reached the two-story house in Pulaski, where people gather around a tray of day-old bread in the lobby, share the grim details of their finances and come away with $35 vouchers that cover a tiny fraction of their bills. Food prices here have jumped 8 percent in the last year; electricity bills are up an average of 20 percent.

The office’s four employees are all local women, each with more than a decade of community action experience. Hancock is the only one who works on the first floor of the house, which means she sees the most traffic, sometimes counseling 30 people per day. She is a college graduate who has devoted 15 years to social service, but she still makes less than $26,000 per year.

It has always been a hard job, but lately there are days when it feels untenable. People here seem more desperate than ever, she says, and more likely to snap. Now the police sometimes drop by the office to make their presence known, and management has installed an emergency buzzer on the side of Hancock’s desk in case she feels threatened. Now bosses distribute training manuals on how to defuse “emotional situations” and industry experts talk about increased risks of burnout and “vicarious traumatization” for social service workers dealing with the ruins of a historic recession.

Hancock doesn’t much believe in any of that. Sometimes her day ends with a headache or a little back pain, and lately she needs a cigarette on the porch between appointments to calm her nerves. But it’s the people she counsels who are really suffering, she says. And for every one who is likely to snap, there are all the others.

Those are the ones she remembers from earlier this year, when, as a last resort, the emergency office placed an advertisement in the local newspaper asking for donations. The results began arriving in the mail a few days later: envelopes filled with $1 bills and sent from addresses listed in the agency’s database, a surge of donations from the very welfare recipients who come to the office for help.

Hancock is supposed to spend about five minutes with each client. Her job, officially, is to distribute vouchers and ask a few basic questions for record­­­-keeping — income amount, food stamp status and number of residents in the house.

But she also believes it is her job to listen, which means her sessions stray off script and last 20 minutes or more. “People who are suffering need to be heard,” she says, and that much she knows. Five years ago, her only son, Buck, committed suicide at 15. Hancock found him hanging from a tree in the backyard early the next morning. She wanted to sell the house or at least cut down the tree, but she couldn’t afford to do either. So instead she mounted a quilt made of Buck’s old T-shirts on the wall in her living room, put his name on her license plate, adopted eight dogs to keep her company and tore through mystery novels to occupy her mind. She saw a counselor and joined a support group. Being with other people kept the loneliness at bay. Talking helped.

So now, when people come into her office, she speaks in a constant hum even as she listens. “Uh-huh, uh-huh, I know. Oh, honey. Oh, Lordy.” She makes eye contact. She never looks at the clock. She tells them: “I shop at Family Dollar. I know what it’s like to be poor.” Mostly, she nods in affirmation and listens to their stories.

Into her office comes a 56-year-old named Sam: “I’ve been calling into the radio station, putting an ad on the air looking for work — any work — but there ain’t nothing. Nothing in this damn town. We’ve been staying out in the street three nights, then sleeping over with my nephew and them. Now we’ve found a place real cheap out in Newbern. Good news is, we’ve got either the security deposit or the rent. Bad news is, we don’t got both.”

Next is Cari, with long black hair and a too-small T-shirt: “I used to work over at the foundry, melting liquid iron, but that’s been a year and a half ago at least. My husband and me are living with a friend now. He’s real good to us, but food goes fast.”

Next is a 29-year-old who wants gas money to visit a sick grandfather: “I need a tank and some Tylenol.” Next is a woman with an electric bill for $422.13 who bounces her right knee compulsively and adds the numbers on the bill again and again: “This can’t be right, can it? No, this can’t be right.” Next is a regular client, an ex-convict who comes each month for food, and Hancock walks next door to the pantry and fills four Save-A-Lot plastic bags with chicken gizzards, canned beans, cheese, peanut butter, tuna, ramen noodles and generic-brand cereal. “This is great,” the man says, rifling through the bags to see what’s inside. “This is my grocery shopping.”

Next is a woman with a $210 water bill . . . and a homeless teenager carrying his belongings in a duffel bag . . . and a father of two hoping to pick up some cereal. Hancock gives him three boxes and watches him head out the door. The waiting room is empty. The office is quiet. Finally.

“I can’t take no more today,” Hancock says. “I need a cigarette.”

She walks out to the sloping front porch and lights up a Pyramid 100. A battered Ford truck pulls up across the street. The driver climbs out and starts walking toward the porch. “Oh no,” Hancock says. “Another.”

It’s almost 4:30 p.m., a full hour after she is scheduled to stop seeing clients. Two of her co-workers have already gone home for the day and the other is about to leave. But Hancock stubs out her cigarette, smiles at the woman and holds open the front door. The client follows her into the office, and Hancock sits down at the computer. For now, she still has a little money left to give out. For now, this is still her job.

“Okay,” she says, looking across the desk, beginning the same conversation again. “Income still zero, honey?”

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