'No win' for nonprofits relying on state funds

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A women's shelter in Uptown can no longer afford bed linens.

Some students at Trinity Christian School in Forest Hills read from textbooks, while their classmates rifle through stacks of photocopies.

A mental health agency in Butler has run out of paper towels, tissues, napkins and pens, and won't reorder more. Staff at the Grapevine Center have also swapped regular coffee for decaf.

"They're not getting a bump from it, so they won't drink as much," said the center's board president, Jack McKenna. "Any penny we can save."

Even though state legislators appeared to be moving closer last night to ending an impasse over the state budget, people continue to feel the pervasive constraints from the stalemate, now in its 100th day.

As lawmakers and the governor squabbled over how to raise and spend some $27.8 billion, social services, day cares, food pantries, education programs, shelters and other agencies that rely on state money have been forced to cut jobs, slash programs and struggle to make payroll.

Pennsylvania is the only state that has not adopted a budget; the deadline to do so was July 1.

But even if a budget solution is imminent, some service providers said they cannot foresee an end to their financial woes.

"It is unconscionable that our elected officials have not done their job," said Marc Cherna, director of Allegheny County's Department of Human Services. "Here we are, three-and-a-half months later, and they are still fighting. In the meantime, people are getting hurt and people can die."

Hardest hit by the stalemate include community agencies and child care programs, which have not received subsidy payments in more than three months. At least 250 child care employees in Allegheny County had lost their jobs as of early September, according to the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children. Many programs for school-age children have been canceled or suspended, which providers said has had a trickle-down effect, causing headaches and hardships for working parents who rely on their services.

Many others feel the far-reaching impact of the budget battle in less obvious ways.

Trinity Christian School, like many private schools, relies on state money for its textbooks and cannot pay for new ones until the budget is passed. As a result, some students have books, while others have stacks of photocopies, stapled together, said Dale McLane, the school's headmaster. Elementary classes with workbooks that need to be replaced each year use photocopies almost exclusively, he said.

"At every parent meeting we have had, I have asked people to pray," Mr. McLane said, "and also to write their legislators and say, this is important."

Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania's computer recycling program has all but shut down because the workers who dismantle the machines no longer receive wages from the state. What was once considered paid work experience for people involved in city and county welfare programs is now considered community service.

During the recycling program's peak, more than 30 people would work each shift. Now, the agency is lucky to have five or six per shift, said Ella Holsinger, Goodwill's vice president of human services.

"It has demotivated a lot of people," she said, adding that the recycling program has seen about an 80 percent reduction in volume per month.

At Womanspace East in Uptown, which provides emergency housing services to women and their children, each month brings a choice: make payroll or pay mounting utility and insurance bills. The shelter can barely afford either, Executive Director Toni Pendleton said.

Staff hours have been cut, adding strain to an already stressful operation. The shelter works with victims of domestic violence, those facing eviction and those in recovery, many of whom have virtually nothing when they seek help, Ms. Pendleton said.

"We supply all the bed linens, and we can't even provide that," she said. "If we don't get money very soon, we are going to have to make some other arrangements for people to go somewhere else. We don't want to do that."

In a similar hard spot is faith-based nonprofit Strength Inc., which runs human services programs, including housing, out of Wilkinsburg. Many of its clients are homeless, addicts or fresh out of jail. Leaders there said closures and cutbacks of other agencies due to the budget impasse have more people seeking help from Strength, which cannot afford to expand its services.

Program Director Allen Simpson said he turned away a homeless man this week because there were no beds available for him. The group turns away five to 10 people each day.

"It's heart-wrenching," Mr. Simpson said. "You know these people need services and you're at a loss, your hands are tied. You don't have the finances, you can't expand your program."

Things are no easier at the Grapevine Center in Butler, which provides aid to some 3,000 clients who struggle with a range of mental health issues from addiction to depression.

Unable to afford fuel for its staff cars, the agency's drivers can't take clients as often as they normally would to meals, doctor's appointments, workshops and activities that build fellowship, Mr. McKenna said.

State-mandated programs have suffered because staff hours have been cut; meals for clients still exist but include less meat.

Mr. McKenna recently realized the center was out of pens, and pulled from his own pocket to buy some.

A budget agreement, he said, won't necessarily bring relief. The center is prepared to request a line of credit from a bank.

"Even after there is a state budget, they're talking six to eight weeks before we see a penny," Mr. McKenna said. "How many times are we going to have to extend our line of credit, and how far can we extend our line of credit, being a nonprofit? There is no win."


Sadie Gurman can be reached at sgurman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878.


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