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From housing to health care, Charleston would feel loss of CDBG funds

SAM OWENS | Gazette-Mail file photo
An exam room sits empty at the West Virginia Health Right clinic in Charleston. The clinic, which has more than 19,000 patients, may be forced to stop accepting new patients if it loses federal funding from the Community Development Block Grant Program, which is being targeted for elimination in President Donald Trump’s budget proposal.

Tearing down abandoned buildings. Feeding people, and getting them health care. Finding the homeless places to live.

Money for all that comes from the Community Development Block Grant program. That program is targeted for elimination in President Donald Trump’s budget proposal, which cuts $6 billion from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Half of that would come from getting rid of the CDBG program.

Community block grants help fund local programs that provide resources to low- and moderate-income people. That can range from daily meals and dental care to housing rehabilitation and financial literacy counseling for first-time homeowners.

The grants can also be used to help eliminate slum and blight or address urgent community needs.

The Trump administration’s budget proposal also recommends eliminating the HOME Investment Partnerships program, which helps fund the rehabilitation and construction of affordable housing for low-income people.

Since 2006, the City of Charleston has received nearly $27 million in CDBG funds. The money is allocated to the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Community Development, which gives it to nonprofit groups that provide community services. In 2016, the city economic development office received $1.3 million in CDBG funds and $475,000 for the HOME program. That’s down from nearly $3 million from those two programs in 2006, said Brian King, the office’s director.

That money is also used by the city to address the slum and blight component of the program.

The grants are the city’s sole fund for demolitions. About $200,000 annually goes to the Charleston Building Commission to demolish unsafe and dilapidated buildings.

‘More with less’

Last year, $204,000 in CDBG grants went to more than a dozen public service groups around Charleston, such as Manna Meal, WV Health Right and the Kanawha Valley Fellowship Home.

Manna Meal, which serves two meals to an average of 440 people per day, 365 days a year, received $28,000 from CDBG last year and $25,000 the year before that.

With a total food budget of $145,000, Director Jean Simpson said Manna Meal relies heavily on donations.

“We don’t get any state funds of any kind, so we try to create that from our community,” Simpson said. “We have been so fortunate for 41 years that our community is so willing to sponsor this program of feeding our neighbors.”

Manna Meal gathered nearly a quarter of a million pounds of food from the community last year. “That big chunk of food we collect through the community is our saving grace,” Simpson said.

Four years ago, she began making sure each meal included a salad and cooked vegetables. Fruit is available for breakfast and lunch. If Manna Meal lost CDBG funds, fresh produce would likely become a thing of the past, she said.

“We’d probably go back to soups and sandwiches,” she said.

While Manna Meal receives consistent support from churches and community members, Simpson worries about how that will change over time as West Virginia’s population continues to dwindle.

“The impact is, we’ll end up with more people in our lines, and less money [to feed them],” she said.

Last year, WV Health Right’s Charleston clinic received $45,000 — the largest single allocation in community block grant funds from the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Community Development.

Chief Executive Officer Angie Settle said WV Health Right receives roughly that amount each year. The funds are specifically allocated to providing dental services and medicine to people who can’t afford care and don’t have insurance. In recent years, the clinic has placed more focus on disabled veterans.

“A person in the military who’s not 100 percent disabled ... might have medical, but no dental,” Settle said. The CDBG funds the clinic receives are used to buy dentures for veterans and the homeless who couldn’t otherwise afford them or for penicillin to treat patients with a dental abscess.

The clinic has a $2.5 million annual budget, Settle said. In addition to receiving roughly $800,000 from the state, the clinic relies on about 50 different grant sources to stay afloat.

The Charleston clinic has more than 19,000 patients, with roughly 100 new patients every month.

“About 85 percent of our patients work. Some are working two or three part-time jobs,” Settle said.

The services provided through CDBG funds help make the clinic’s patients more employable, she said.

“A lot of times, we’re taking care of people who want to work, but maybe they don’t have their front teeth — they’re not employable,” Settle said. “[This] is one of the best places to send them for dental pain, because we’re not going to give them narcotics.”

If the grants are eliminated, Settle said the clinic may need to stop taking new patients.

“You can only stretch the dollar so much. It sounds like on the federal level, there’s going to be a lot more people uninsured,” she said, referring to the promised repeal of the Affordable Care Act. “We’re kind of expected to do more with less.”

Even groups that don’t benefit directly from CDBG funds wonder if they could be affected by the cuts. Many Meals on Wheels programs around the country get CDBG money, but Charleston’s doesn’t, said Ken Pike, president of the local organization.

A cut of the CDBGs will affect many organizations, but the local Meals on Wheels chapter isn’t worried about funding.

“We just worry about having volunteers,” said Ken Pike, president of Meals on Wheels, Inc. of Charleston WV. “We don’t receive federal funding and never have. Just about every other Meals on Wheels program does, but we don’t.”

The program is currently at full capacity based on the number of volunteers and their capabilities. They deliver about 80 meals a day through the week to all areas of Charleston with about 30 volunteers. Many volunteers are 80 years old or older.

“We are totally full and have a waiting list,” Pike said. “We can’t take anymore.”

If funding for other groups declines, the waiting list could increase at Meals on Wheels, Manna Meal and other agencies.

“It’s not all donations,” said Kay Albright, Manna Meal’s outreach coordinator. “We would have to fill in the gaps somehow.”

‘A vital link for people’

Bill Hairston is director of social services for the Religious Coalition for Community Renewal, a nonprofit group that has served people and families in Kanawha, Putnam and Boone counties for nearly 30 years.

The services range from a facility in Charleston for those trying to rise out of homelessness into permanent housing, to financial literacy counseling for first-time home buyers.

“We’re all about housing — safe, decent, affordable housing for neighbors,” Hairston said.

RCCR also operates Samaritan Inn, a transitional housing program for men in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction.

The organization received $22,000 in CDBG funds last year, but Hairston said it also receives grants from other programs under HUD. While those haven’t been specifically targeted in the proposed budget, Hairston isn’t optimistic.

“If that [$22,000] left, that would pretty much kill our housing counseling and our financial literacy program that helps people get prepared to own their homes,” he said.

Last year, YWCA Charleston’s Sojourner’s Shelter for Homeless Women & Families received $9,000 in CDBG funds. That money was used for a crucial service, Director Margaret Taylor said.

“We used all of that $9,000 to help fund a full-time substance abuse counselor,” Taylor said. Nearly half of the people Sojourner’s serves are dealing with substance abuse or mental health issues.

“Drugs are the No. 1 topic now. To think about cutting for programs like CDBG is unheard of,” Taylor said.

Counseling is a service that’s “vitally needed here in our facility,” she added. “We pay up front and do what we need to do to alleviate the problem, or it’s going to cost us more later.”

Covenant House, which provides the homeless and people struggling financially with basic needs such as food, showers, clothing and laundry services, received $7,000 last year in CDBG funds.

“That’s about the only funding we get to keep our day shelter open. We fundraise for the rest of it,” Executive Director Ellen Allen said.

Fundraising is essential to Covenant House’s budget — it raises more than half a million dollars a year.

But federal grants are just as crucial, Allen said.

“Over half our budget comes from HUD,” she said. The CDBG funds are just one grant program Covenant House applies for.

“I think our federal government should take more of an interest to help our most marginalized citizens. This is where people living outside come to wash their clothes, take a shower, get their mail, enroll in other benefits like SNAP and Medicaid. It’s just a vital link for people in our city,” Allen said.

While she credited the support Covenant House receives from the local community, Allen is also concerned about how that may change in the coming years.

“This is a very generous community. They step up and support as they’re able, but [there’s also] an outmigration of residents,” Allen said.

“Ten thousand people left last year. I’m really concerned about all these factors — people leaving the state, a large number of people receiving SNAP benefits and Medicaid expansion, all these are jeopardized.”

Staff writer Anna Taylor contributed to this report.

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