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Funding for Homeless Services Dwindling

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

January 19 -- If the last fiscal year is any indication, tough times may lay ahead for both the homeless and the non-profits who serve them.

That is the message echoed by City officials and non-profits who warn that looming drops in funding to local homeless service agencies could likely translate into cuts and fewer services.

In fact, the trend has already begun.

Nine area non-profits received a total of nearly $300,000 less in the 2003-04 fiscal year than they did in the previous year, according to a Lookout analysis of the annual Review of the City's Coordinated Plan for Homeless Services released last week.

That's not pocket change for Santa Monica's homeless service providers, who rely on donations and government funding, including $1.6 million from the City, said Julie Rusk, the City's Human Services Manager.

"I would say that's a significant drop," said Rusk, who helped author the report. "That could translate into less services and many cuts in administration. It really depends on how the non-profits apply such cuts.”

The decrease in funding comes at a difficult time, Rusk added. "Funding cuts in (assisted housing) have acted as sort of a bottle neck, and so getting people on their feet takes longer," she said.

Rusk said that non-profits are "very sensitive to what's happening with the larger economic conditions" and that corporate and individual donations have been down across the board in the last year.

In addition, such groups have experienced a downturn in both state and federal funding, a trend City officials and homeless service providers said is likely to continue into the future.

Non-City funding has been on the decline, according to the City report. In fiscal year 2003-04, the City gave $1 dollar for $2.69 raised by the non-profits, down from $1 for $3.03 the previous year.

With across-the-board cuts, City spending -- which has hovered between $1.5 million and $1.6 million for nearly a decade -- is the only stable source of funding for most of the non-profits, Rusk said.

The funding cuts are already affecting local non-profit agencies, which provide shelter, food, counseling, job training and placement services for Santa Monica's homeless, experts said.

"Everyone I've talked to in this sector has seen a decrease" in funding, said John Maceri, executive director of the Ocean Park Community Center (OPCC), the city's largest homeless service provider.

"This all has a net effect on our bottom line,” Maceri said. “However, it impacts different organizations differently."

Without an increase in City funding -- which is not expected --, and with a continued decrease in state and federal funding, some area non-profits are bracing for hard times ahead.

"Last year we decided not to fill a few positions, but there haven't been any massive layoffs yet, though it could be a real possibility," Maceri said.

Maceri said both corporate and government funding for OPCC fell nearly 10 percent over the past fiscal year. Although those cuts have not yet resulted in a decrease in services, if the trend continues, that remains a serious specter, he said.

"The drop in funding puts more pressure on us as an organization, and it could lead to a cut in services in the future," Maceri said.

St. Joseph's Center is another homeless service organization which is concerned about the downward trend. The center has already made some difficult staffing cuts and reorganized in the last year, said CEO Rhonda Meister.

Though Meister said City funding increases may improve the plight of homeless agencies, she cautioned that the City should do so only as part of a regional approach to homelessness.

But Meister admits any regional solution could prove hard to implement in a climate where social services are not being adequately funded by either the state or federal governments.

"I think it spells out very hard times, and I think it comes at an incredibly difficult time for us," said Meister, who noted that on the whole giving for St. Joseph's has remained "pretty consistent" even though it was down "slightly" last year.

"I think you have to hold out a vision of how to make things better, and the fact of the matter is that this (the Bush) administration won't be in forever," Meister said.
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