A single mother seeking help with a young son whom she is losing to the streets stood up in a room of 30 or so people Wednesday and posed the question that was on the mind of everyone else.
What can be done?
Representatives of Allegheny County Department of Human Services gathered with providers of social services -- and some of the people who rely on them -- to discuss child welfare and juvenile probation in the face of severe funding cuts.
The meeting, in the Human Services Building on Smithfield Street, Downtown, was part of the annual budget process, with directors inviting the public to present their priorities.
"We have to do a needs-based budget for the state, and it's very important to get feedback from the community at large," said Marc Cherna, director of Allegheny County Department of Human Services.
This year's spending plan for the department amounts to about $220 million, a total that has decreased in each of the past few years. A draft of the 2012-13 budget is due next month. Then, after more public comment, it is sent to the state by Aug. 15.
But with the mood in Harrisburg very much tuned to cutbacks, it is uncertain what kind of reception a social services wish list is going to get.
"The people here understand the challenges we face with the budget cuts," Mr. Cherna said after Wednesday's meeting. "We didn't have a lot of people yelling and screaming about 'How dare you make these cuts?' Because they know we can't control this. It was constructive."
Carmella Jones, 30, a single mother of five who lives in the Steel Valley, attended to tell the social workers of the important role they fill. While the pile of paperwork is high and the lines are long, she said, the things they do make a difference.
"Some of us don't have families," she said. "It's hard for us to ask for help. The relationships you build with families can save them."
One woman, a 58-year-old mother, told of the success her family has experienced because of Allegheny County social services. Her daughter is on the dean's list at Chatham University, a son is going to Duquesne University and the youngest girl is on the honor roll at her high school.
"Whatever creative ways you can, keep the centers going," she told Mr. Cherna, referring to community centers. "Because the families need the centers."
Mr. Cherna said this will be the first time he has faced these kinds of budget cuts in his 15 years on the job.
"We've been creative," he said. "But this year the cuts are too big. The federal cuts [are] on top of the state cuts, and there's no county match. It's like a perfect storm.
"All we can do is ask for [help] again and advocate for next year and hope the economy picks up. In this environment, I'm not optimistic about anything. But it doesn't hurt to ask."
Dan Majors: email@example.com or 412-263-1456.