Lena Early is hanging in there, but she is vulnerable. Like others who depend on the District government for help, she can feel the chill wind of the city's penury.
At 78, Early suffers from diabetes, arthritis, anemia and high blood pressure. She cannot move around much, even with her walker. But she is not in an institution and does not want to be. With a little help, she keeps body and soul together in a one-room apartment at St. Mary's Court, an apartment house for the elderly near the Watergate.
The help is the nine hours a week of "chore service" by a woman who does Early's marketing, laundry and housecleaning. The federal government pays most of her $2.90 an hour, and the District pays the rest. Lena Early's concern is that complex new rules for chore service eligibility proposed by the city's Department of Human Services to save money could reduce or abolish the help she gets.
"I don't know what I would do then," she said. "We live in hope and die in despair."
She is afraid of being forced into the growing ranks of the poor, the elderly, the disadvantaged and the down-and-out who are being squeezed by the District government's financial problems. Across the city, services to people on the margins of life are being trimmed, and community organizations and volunteer workers are becoming alarmed about the budget-cutting tactics of Mayor Marion Barry.
In the last year, the Barry administration, struggling to reduce the city's cumulative $409 million deficit, has cut or plans to cut service to the homeless, the elderly, food stamp recipients, the mentally ill, alcoholics, jail inmates and all clients of its health clinics.
Facilities for medical treatment and diagnosis have been curtailed. Welfare benefits have dropped below the national average, and a purge of the rolls has removed some persons who were actually eligible. Plans have been made to charge fees for recreation services that have been free, including bus transportation for the handicapped.
At the time when bus and subway fares are rising, clients of many programs are being required to travel to new locations as facilities are consolidated -- a policy that opponents say will discourage the poor and elderly from using those services and encourage new budget cuts by making the demand appear to decline.
The cutbacks have engendered anger and bitterness among some city residents who say Barry and his administration have betrayed the poor. According to a Washington Post survey published yesterday, 36 percent of the residents polled say they feel Barry cares more for special interests.
"He cares more about the moneyed people; he has turned his back on the poor and elderly," said a 66-year-old widow. ". . . He doesn't care about the poor people," said another resident.
Early does not have much in her apartment -- a card table, a bed with sides, a crucifix and picture of the Last Supper on the wall. But it is clean and safe and specially equipped so she can bathe herself. On her monthly income of $278 in Social Security payments, it is all she can afford. mShe wants to stay and, without the chore service, she might not be able to.
"I can dress myself," she said. "The hardest part is putting on a pair of shoes. But I can't carry my own groceries."
Early is a plaintiff in a court action brought by Legal Counsel for the Elderly on behalf of all 1,100 city residents who receive chore service, in an attempt to block implementation of the new rules. That lawsuit is only one of a score of rear-guard actions being fought around the District by lawyers, community groups and individuals against a government that is chipping away at services.
Barry, who took office nearly two years ago talking of "compassion" and of his commitment to the poor, rejects any suggestion that he has turned his back on the groups he once represented as a street activist.
"I don't listen to some of this talk about who's being squeezed because I know the people who need help the most are getting it," he said in a recent interview. "If I had all the money I needed, everyone in Washington that wanted a job would have a job or job training, everyone that wanted a decent sanitarium for the elderly would have one, every mother who had a child and needed health care would have it and so on, that's what I would do if I had the power and control to do it. But even under these circumstances, a tremendous amount of the District government's money is going to those who need help the most. People are getting services that they wouldn't get if this administration weren't compassionate."
Outside the District Building, that assessment is widely disputed.
"I had great hopes, but things are getting worse and worse," said Virginia Morris, director of Far East Community Services Inc. "I understand the need to curtail services but it's all helter-skelter, it hasn't been prioritized."
Morris told of a woman released by St. Elizabeths Hospital who walked into her office uninvited and sat for hours at the conference table. "We have a community mental health clinic right across the hall," she said, "and I can take that lady in there and someone will talk to her. But that clinic is going to be moved over to D.C. General Hospital," two subway stops or a 15-minute bus ride away. "People are not going to ride over there at the new fares."
Workers at other organizations also objected to the policy of centralizing services while transit fares are rising sharply. A recent edition of the D.C. Register, the city's official gazette, announced that applications for welfare assistance for unemployables would be taken only at one location and that a dental clinic in Georgetown would be closed and its clients sent to other locations. But the cuts also work the other way: Staff members at the Marie Reid clinic in Adams-Morgan say they have to send aged and infirm clients all around the city to obtain services formerly available at a single location.
Barry inherited many of the District's financial problems, but community groups and lobbyists for particular services hold his administration responsible for the erosion of services on which they have come to rely.Witnesses from community groups and volunteer organizations who testified at City Council hearings on Barry's 1982 budget used words like "unconscionable" and "intolerable" to describe what is happening.
Edward Nesbitt, director of Center City Community Corp. (Four Cs), said he has detected "a constant anxiety that I don't think is healthy among the elderly and people on fixed income, the people who just don't have the money" to pay higher service costs or more taxes. The only reason there are no street protests in his area, on lower North Capitol Street, he said, is that "there is a sense of helplessness. People are turned off. But something is going to happen."
Two days before Christmas, Council 211 of the American Federation of Government Employees brought representatives of the Gray Panthers, Seniors for Better Dental Care, the Coalition for Human Dignity and other groups to gather outside Barry's office demanding "social and economic justice" in balancing the budget. To the tune of "O Little Town of Bethlehem," they caroled: "O little town of Washington How sad your future seems. You fail to heed your old folks' needs. You step on children's dreams."
In a more conventional protest, Walter H. Person, chairman of the Washington Area council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, wrote a strongly worded letter to James A. Buford, director of the Department of Human Services. He said that plans to close a halfway house for alcoholics and a detoxification center for women would result in the loss of 41 beds for alcoholism treatment, which he called "totally unacceptable" and "unthinkable at this time of year when the need for these beds is often a life-or-death matter."
Other facilities for alcoholics and drug abusers also are being curtailed. The Rehabilitation Center at Occoquan, which once served about 600 residents, has cut its capacity to about 300 and has laid off all its psychological staff. The "adult abstinence unit" on the grounds of D.C. General Hospital is to be closed next month. The District says its policy is to place alcoholics in private, community-based facilities instead of its own institutions.
Others are feeling the pinch, too. The Washington Post reported in September that critical disease prevention programs and health services were being curtailed or discontinued in the economy drive. Immunization, epidemiology and health emergency programs are among the casualties.
At D.C. Jail, according to the city budget, 540 inmates received individual psychological counseling in the 1980 fiscal year. It will be zero in 1982. At Lorton Reformatory, alcohol and drug abuse counseling are to be eliminated.
Community groups and lawyers for the poor also focused on these issues:
Workers who determine food stamp eligibility no longer will be available to take on-site applications at 14 homes for the elderly. An estimated 2,200 families eligible for food stamps are not getting them because of a shortage of staff to process their applications, according to the D.C. Food Stamp Coalition.
"Ambulatory health care" facilities, which means outpatient services and clinics, are scheduled to be cut below levels that community groups say are already inadequate.
The city sought to close its shelters for homeless men, only to be stopped by legal action. A family shelter in Anacostia was closed.
The Upshur Street Clinic, one of the busiest facilities for the medically indigent, at 1325 Upshur St. NW, was closed. A federal judge has ordered the city to reopen it, but the order has been stayed pending an appeal by the city.