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Dec 22nd
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Care Interrupted

newsscaidscenterState budget cuts devastate local social service organization
It’s Wednesday afternoon, and the waiting room of the Walnut Avenue Women’s Center in Santa Cruz is dark and silent. Mid-week, the center would normally be crowded with people waiting to see a counselor about domestic violence support services, or for a literacy class, a workshop for teens, or one of the many other programs the Center provides. But today there is no one, and the homemade signs taped to the windows outside tell part of the story: “17 People Unemployed Today – Funding Cuts Hurt.” “Governor Terminates Funding For Domestic Violence Services.” “Wednesday = No Shelter, No Food, No Safety, No Education, No Groups, No Legal Services.”

Just blocks away, on Front Street, the Drop-In Center, a program run for 10 years by the Santa Cruz AIDS Project (SCAP), prepares to close its doors for good on Sept. 15. SCAP is scrambling to find a new place to hold the needle exchange and HIV testing programs it provided at the Drop-In Center. The Center also assisted with referrals for housing and health services. These are just two of the Santa Cruz institutions impacted by Gov. Schwarzenegger’s budget cuts in late July, which cut more than $200 million from social services organizations, including eliminating 100 percent of funding for California’s domestic violence programs,  $20.4 million in total.

Dee O’Brien, executive director for the Women’s Center, says the situation is bleak all around. “There is no state funding for any domestic violence services,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many shelters have already closed. We’re a family resource center, so we have diverse funding. But we did have to do some dramatic cuts that have really impacted us.” They have been forced to eliminate one staff position, cut the hours of other staffers by 20 percent, and close every Wednesday. Only the funding they receive from non-domestic violence-related grants keeps them open.

SCAP is similarly strapped. “We are in crisis mode,” says Merle Smith, executive director. “The governor absolutely cut off every dollar for education and prevention for our agency and for this county.”   Though she struggles to remain positive, focusing on the fact that SCAP will be able to maintain the programs formerly hosted by the Drop-In Center, she’s indubitably worried.

Of special concern to her is the impact on the community if the needle exchange program does not find a new home. “I don’t think people realize the needle exchange program is designed to save lives, not to encourage drug use,” she says. “The purpose of the needle exchange is harm reduction—to reduce harm not only to the person who is using the drug, but to the public who are harmed by being exposed to that drug paraphernalia if there’s no place to safely collect it.”

Smith is certain that the lack of a needle exchange program will result in more needles being found throughout the city, causing Santa Cruz to face an imminent and potentially lethal public health hazard. “If we have no staff to collect those needles and put them in biohazard bags to be disposed of, you will find even more on the levees, on the riverbanks, in the parks, in the bus stations, and in local restrooms where they are easily accessible by the public,” she says.

O’Brien and Kristie Clemens, the Women’s Center’s director of domestic violence services, foresee equally devastating consequences because of the cuts to their programs. Along with Women’s Crisis Support—Defensa de Mujeres, they’ll suffer a combined loss of $635,000 in funding. Losing one day a week means that their services are often overcrowded on other days, and they fear that some people seeking help for domestic violence will be forced to leave before they are seen, and may not be able to return.

“It takes all the courage in the world to walk through those doors and ask for help. Sixty percent of women being harmed never do,” says O’Brien. “When you eliminate the funding, it means that about 30 women a day are not getting that support.” She points out that this also means that other, already overstretched programs will be further inundated: police departments, courts, emergency rooms, and homeless shelters all see increases in their client numbers when preventive services like SCAP and the Women’s Center have to curtail operations. Both organizations are in desperate need of help from the community. They say that financial donations are crucial, but so are volunteers.

“Community support has kept us going,” Smith says simply. But like O’Brien, she too is concerned that losing the Drop-In Center means losing a chance to offer free, non-judgmental services to people who might not receive them otherwise. “We are a first entry point,” she explains, not just for intravenous drug users or people living with AIDS, but many others in need of help. The center also offers practical supplies, information, and referrals to children and elders suffering from abuse or neglect, homeless youth, and domestic violence victims.

“We don’t care who it is,” she says. “We don’t care about ethnicity, gender, or the financial status. You’d be surprised at who comes to the Drop-In Center.” She adds that one fewer place for people to receive help means that more people will end up going without. “For 25 years this agency has been here because people realize the value of our services, because we have shown and proven that our activities are cost-effective,” she says. “If you eliminate this program, where will those people get those services?”

SCAP may soon lose even more federal cash, which the county may funnel off to fund their own HIV/AIDS program. “We are currently in negotiation with the county to not take away our federal grant monies to sustain their staff,” says Smith. “We’re trying to convince them that where they may see 30 people with their care team, we have 215 clients. If you balance it on that alone, it would appear that it would be better to sustain our program.”

Ultimately, both SCAP and the Women’s Center struggle with an uneasy feeling that these devastating budget cuts are far more than an economic necessity; that instead they may signal a fundamental and disturbing shift in how the state government views issues like AIDS and domestic violence. “The message this sends to the community is that somehow the governor has decided it doesn’t matter. Is it no longer a public health issue? Is it not important?” asks O’Brien.

“In the big picture, this is not a lot of money for them,” adds Clemens. “So why were we targeted? For us to regain that money will take so much time and energy and commitment and generosity from the community. It’s short term gains, long term costs … We’re not as far as we would like to be as a movement and as a society that doesn’t tolerate abuse. To have the funding cut just really limits how we’re able to serve people who are vulnerable.”

For her part, Smith is determined to keep SCAP alive. She points out that people living with HIV and AIDS are still some of the most stigmatized members of society. “These people have no one to advocate for them except us,” she says. “We will make it through this. But who’s advocating for us now?”

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