Love Kindness. Do Justice. Change the World ... Right Now!
Love Kindness. Do Justice. Change the World ... Right Now!
“You can cut the anxiety in the air with a knife,” said Anne Carlson, director of the Dignity Center, a ministry at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church that helps people in poverty obtain a level of self-sufficiency.
The Rev. Kevin Schill, who is watching more people visit the food shelf at the Simpson Center for Servant Ministries, said, “People might be responding out of fear” and stocking up on food.
“People are worried about losing general assistance, medical care, child care, any service provided by government funds,” Carlson said.
Because Minnesota legislators failed to agree on a budget by June 30, the state government shut down. General assistance and a number of other services continue under a court order that is to expire July 31. Under that order, the services that continue include Medicaid/Medical Assistance, Minnesota Family Investment Program, Diversionary Work Program, Minnesota Supplemental Aid, Refugee Cash Assistance, Group Residential Housing, Food Support, MinnesotaCare, Minnesota Food Assistance Program and Adoption Assistance.
Other services that people rely on are not on this “deemed critical” list. Many federal program funds distributed through the state are languishing unpaid because of state staff layoffs.
“The context for this shutdown is that our government—reflecting our general culture—has become so partisan that it finds it difficult to make decisions that will help the common good,” said Bishop Sally Dyck in an appeal for prayer sent July 8 to Minnesota United Methodists. “The impact of the government shutdown is that many of the most vulnerable in our state are or will increasingly be the ones who once more bear the burden of our government’s inability to pass a budget.”
“Right now we are processing a lot of food orders,” says Anne Harnack, executive director of People Reaching Out to Other People in Eden Prairie. “Generally, the beginning of the month is busier but it seems to be a little extreme this week. We do anticipate those who have lost child care assistance and mental health support will be contacting us soon.”
Most churches allow their pastors a discretionary fund for walk-in emergency requests. These funds are stretched beyond capacity.
“I have experienced a 300-percent increase in the number of subsistence-related requests from actual congregants since last week when the shutdown went into effect,” says the Rev. John Darlington, pastor of Simpson and Joyce United Methodist churches in Minneapolis. “That contingency fund I have at my disposal will soon be depleted.”
The Rev. Chad Gilbertson, pastor of Willmar UMC in western Minnesota, says the same.
“We are seeing higher level of referral from the very organizations that we normally refer people to for social services because they are not getting the state funding that they usually receive.”
He expects parishioners will continue to support the discretionary fund, "but not knowing how long the shutdown will last, their ability to support the discretionary fund will be tapped out or they will have to choose to support that or maintaining their regular level of giving."
Loss of state funding is straining United Methodist churches that house or offer child-care, which starts a domino effect.
“Many people who qualify for child-care subsidies are not receiving them,” said Schill of the Simpson Center. “If they do not have a family member or friend who can care for their children, they cannot go to work. And, they can stay away from work only so long. They have very real concerns about this.”
“The daycare that is housed in North United Methodist Church [Minneapolis] is closed because all of the kids are from families that use state subsidies to pay for their day care,” says the Rev. Linda Koelman. “This means that the three regular caregivers are out of work.
“And, the person who does cleaning for both the church and day care has had hours cut way down. And, it also means that it will be impossible for the day care to pay their share of the utilities if they have no income, so it hurts the church and cuts our income too.”
“We scholarship half of the children enrolled in the center,” says the Rev. Steve Richards, Messiah’s senior pastor. “Currently we have 10 families who are receiving a child-care subsidy through the State of Minnesota. This amounts to a $6,000 loss to our child-care center each month. Additionally, we receive $2,500 per month for a food program. An area non-profit is helping with the loss of subsidy on a week-by-week basis—as they have funds available.
“Kid’s Care is continuing the food program and is currently absorbing the cost….If the state shutdown continues, there will come a point where alternate sources of income will disappear and we may need to reduce staff as families are no longer able to afford child care.”
Park Avenue Youth and Family Services (PAYFS), operating out of Park Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, offers free meals to youngsters taking part in its Urban Summer Academy for kids. It relies on the state for reimbursement for the meals, and lacks other funds to cover this expense, says Ann Bauer, PAYFS office and communications coordinator.
The demand for affordable housing is great in Minnesota. Since the May 22 tornado that hit a struggling northeast Minneapolis neighborhood, that city’s housing and shelter options are quickly depleting. Loss of state assistance adds more pressure.
“It is almost impossible to get people into housing,” says Carlson of the Dignity Center. “We are hearing from people who’ve never been homeless. They are like deer in the headlights. They don’t know how to access the system, and the system is strapped.”
A woman recently called Carlson seeking help navigating the system. A family shelter expects people to pay their Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) benefit of about $480 as rent to the shelter. Residents also need to be looking for a job and have a job counselor.
This caller explained to Carlson that she used her MFIP benefit to put her belongings in storage so she wouldn’t lose them and bought a cell phone so she can communicate for job searches and other essential purposes.
Carlson says county staff—“who are also under stress”—told the woman she was essentially out of luck. Carlson knew that the county policy is to find housing for parents and their children. Carlson called the county to affirm this and urged the woman to revisit the county offices.
“I also told her about Families Moving Forward. Families stay in churches for a week at a time, and they receive food, showers, and overnight lodging. They are moved again in a week. This is less appealing, but it is an option.
“This is the kind of story I hear everywhere,” Carlson said.
Emma Norton Services, a United Methodist Women’s Division ministry in St. Paul that provides housing and other ministries for single women and women with families, skirted problems when their residents’ benefits were put on the “deemed critical” list. However, the shutdown prevents the ministry from serving more women.
Youth on the streets are particularly vulnerable. The Rev. David Bard, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Duluth, is on the board of Life House, a ministry to homeless youth, which Bard says is the only such ministry in Minnesota outside the Twin Cities. Life House is losing about $6,000 a month from lost state support, causing them to cut back on staff, he said.
Bruce Webster, a member of Eden Prairie United Methodist Church, is a computer services consultant who finds himself at home despite having been in the middle of a major project for the corrections department.
“Once the government shut down, they basically suspended or cancelled our contracts,” he says. “What is frustrating is that the contract I am working is covered by federal funds, the Reinvestment in Recovery Act. Yet I am told that because the funds flow through the state and the state staff that distribute and report on the funds are no longer employed, I can’t be paid for my work.”
Brunswick United Methodist in Crystal employs a cleaning crew through Pillsbury United Community’s Employing Partners in Community program, a day-training program for people with developmental disabilities.
“We received a call last week that they would close until the state government reopened,” says Cheryl Gibbons, the church’s office manager. “The crew leader is employed by PUC and the crew must be supervised according to state policies, so there will be no cleaning crew until the state reopens.”
The church can handle a little dust, Gibbons says. But she learned that “all of these guys look forward to coming to our church to ‘do their job.’ It is sad for them.”
As the shutdown continues, Minnesotans grow more frustrated.
“(Legislators’ inability to agree on a budget) demonstrates a withdrawal from the sense of community,” says a United Methodist who works in the Minnesota legislative office of fiscal analysis and prefers to remain unidentified. “That is so wrong. We are only as strong as the weakest one in our community. It’s a mistake to think we can go forward as a community without considering everyone.