For Tucson’s poorest residents, it’s like being hit from both sides: Just as Arizona takes away food and cash assistance from many families, two of the biggest local charities may lose significant city funding.
Under a recommendation the City Council will vote on in early May, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona and the Primavera Foundation would lose money that could limit both summer meals for children and shelter services for the homeless. New Beginnings, a program of Our Family Services, also could take a significant hit in fiscal year 2017 on emergency shelter services for families.
“Between the city doing this and the state reducing its eligibility for help, it’s a perfect storm of need and demand at a time when our funding is going down,” said Michael McDonald, chief executive officer with Tucson’s Food Bank, which stands to lose about $200,000, or 13 percent of its food budget.
While the unemployment rate here has improved — it was down to 4.9 percent in January — McDonald said many Tucsonans are still underemployed and need help as they try to stretch dollars to cover food, rent and utilities.
Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said he heard only on Friday about the proposed changes, developed by a committee of 20 citizen volunteers and some council aides. He is looking into how the recommendations compare with past years.
The city had 100 applications from local service providers this year, said Teresa Williams, Tucson’s deputy director of housing and community development. The funding they sought includes $1.3 million in city general funds, $700,000 in federal Community Development Block Grants and $400,000 in federal Emergency Shelter Grants.
The citizen’s committee’s emphasis this year has fallen on helping youth, and elderly and disabled residents, as well as fighting homelessness and helping other underserved populations including refugees, veterans and ex-offenders, Williams said.
Statewide, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey is pushing to get more people working by getting them off Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, said his spokesman, Daniel Scarpinato.
About 5,000 Pima County residents were notified last week that they will lose their SNAP benefits, which provides food assistance, on July 1. Several hundred people will lose TANF, or cash assistance, here that same day.
Some of those people might be able to keep their SNAP benefits if they have a child under 18 or have found a job but still fall below federal poverty levels — for a family of three, that’s a little over $20,000. Similarly, some can keep their TANF benefits for longer if they’re disabled, the victim of domestic violence, a teen parent of a newborn or caring for a disabled family member or a child under a year old.
About 15 percent of Arizonans traditionally receive SNAP benefits, including nearly one in three children in the state. The program is a critical tool to fight hunger, said Angie Rodgers, president of the Arizona Association of Food Banks. About 128,000 people visit Arizona’s food banks each week, she said, and about half of them also get SNAP.
Tucson resident Amelia Tacho, 25, works one full-time minimum-wage job and one part-time job to support herself and her two children. She said SNAP benefits and a food box at the end of each month are “pretty much how I get by.”
“Rent is just too high and I don’t earn enough to be paying for that and for food,” she said. “It’s pretty much just catching up on the bills and that help gives me enough money to do what I have to do.”
Arizona families who qualify for cash assistance through TANF are the “poorest of the poor,” Rodgers said. They will now get one year of help rather than two as of July 1. Those who have been receiving services for 12 months or more — about 1,600 Arizona families and 2,700 children — will be cut off. That includes 300 families and 460 children in Pima County.
GRATEFUL FOR HELP
About 10 years ago, when Marty Delsid was 54, she fractured her back in an accident and, after surgery, could not return to her career as a full-time respiratory therapist and sleep technologist.
Chronic pain from nerve damage still restricts her activity level and ability to work, and she gets by on Social Security disability pay.
But during those first years after the accident, she found herself in serious trouble. Divorced from her son’s father, she was collecting child support and had some savings, but not enough. They had to move in with her elderly mother to get by as she waited for disability help to kick in.
For a while, she was eligible for about $10 per month in SNAP dollars. But there were hospital and physical therapy bills to pay, and she quickly used up her savings. Delsid and her mother found themselves without enough food, or money to buy it.
She says she was embarrassed when she first walked into Tucson’s Community Food Bank for a box to get through the month.
“I remember trying to decide if I should buy the medicine I needed and let my electricity be turned off,” she said. “It’s just a terrible way to feel. Until you are in the situation, you don’t understand it.”
The shame lifted as Delsid got to know more people working and volunteering at the Food Bank. She signed up for gardening classes and volunteers helped her plant her first home garden.
She was battling diabetes at the time and taking insulin. The people at the Food Bank, where she now volunteers regularly, introduced her to new ideas about how to eat and care for herself.
“I changed my diet and it changed my life,” she said. She lost over 60 pounds and no longer takes insulin. “It’s really been quite a journey for me.”
Following the recent recession, the time limit on SNAP benefits was lifted through a federal waiver.
Now, because of dropping unemployment rates, those waivers are being eliminated in some counties, with a return to a three-month limit every 36 months. Maricopa County’s economy improved enough that it was required to do that, but what happens in Pima and Yavapai counties fell under the discretion of Gov. Ducey, Rodgers said.
The governor opted to impose the same restrictions here as part of his return-to-work push, Scarpinato said. SNAP benefits typically average about $120 per month per person in Arizona, but recipients who are unemployed, ages 18-49 and aren’t disabled or raising minor children will lose that assistance on July 1, even if they are actively looking for work.
The time-limit waiver will remain in place in the other counties because they have higher unemployment rates, he said.
Rodgers, of the Arizona Association of Food Banks, said she worries that the changes will hit those who need help the most. People sometimes try and fail to find work, she said, or a felony conviction or a mental health challenge makes it hard to them to get or keep a job.
For TANF, she said, those working right at the poverty line will now be required to find second jobs to keep up with bills.
“We’ve cut TANF so many times,” she said, “we’re now down to the most vulnerable populations.”
Todd Stone, a DES spokesman, said plans to help people transition have been underway for months through the state’s Family Assistance Administration and the Division of Employment and Rehabilitation Services. DES’s Jobs Program, which is operated by ResCare Inc., outside of the Phoenix area, has been helping TANF recipients with services before their time limit expires, he said.
Rodgers said the state hasn’t done enough to prepare people to transfer off TANF. She points to a recent finding that almost half of the TANF recipients who would lose benefits in July are eligible for some type of exemption. This shows they need more services and support before they can succeed in the workforce, she said.
“They made these policy changes before recognizing what we really could and should be doing for these families,” she said. “A better policy would be that, as people are looking for jobs and starting to get back on their feet, that we actually feed them.”
Daniel Ruiz, a spokesman for Gov. Ducey’s office, disagreed with that claim. In a emailed response to the Star he said was prepared in conjunction with DES, Ruiz said that ResCare assesses each client’s employability based on their work history, needs for child care and barriers to employment such as substance abuse, lack of transportation and education or training needs.
Case managers might also request specialized assessments related to mental health issues, functional capability, reading comprehension and math skills, Ruiz said. The case manager and the client then formulate a plan — based on the results and the client’s interests. It might include unpaid work time to gain experience, vocational training, resume preparation and help with interviewing skills.
Even after that plan is in place, people can go back on TANF benefits if life changes make them eligible again — for example, if they become disabled or take on care of a disabled relative, Ruiz said.
And if clients fail to actively participate in the Jobs Program, they can be sanctioned and lose benefits, Ruiz said. Of 1,600 Arizona families at risk of losing TANF benefits in July, more than 390 face sanctions for not complying with program requirements, he said.
Peggy Hutchinson, CEO of Primavera, said that because of a shortage of services here, her agency already turns away hundreds of families each year.
She said she sees families and single parents struggle to make it on minimum wage jobs, and many women 55 and older who are not able to find work end up homeless.
Between December 2013 and June 2015, almost 3,000 people sought services through Primavera and Our Family, but only 619 were placed in a shelter or housing, either through Primavera or through another agency, such as Our Family’s New Beginnings program.
In all, 1,700 — 58 percent — could not be served because of insufficient resources. About half of all applicants had children.
If the city’s recommendation is passed, Primavera will lose $170,000 that supports its homeless intervention program and shelters and services for men and women.
“We see people who have experienced so much trauma, so much violence, so much displacement but who still want to be self-sufficient,” she said.
Patti Caldwell, executive director of Our Family Services, said the cuts will limit New Beginnings’ ability to help people facing homelessness. The organization stands to lose about $60,000.
“We’re deeply concerned that the changes to SNAP and TANF are likely to take a cumulative toll over time and we’ll being seeing more families experiencing homelessness,” Caldwell said. “It’s hard for me to truly believe that policymakers know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of people experiencing poverty right now.”