Low-income families worry state budget will cut safety nets

OLYMPIA — A few tears were quietly shed as a series of speakers — some beat down by circumstance or the hard economy — explained how they found themselves homeless or how state-funded programs are now helping them feed their kids, get back under a roof or just get by.

“Nothing is more debilitating to your motivation than not having a stable place to live,” said Joshua Chatterton, a disabled Marine Corps veteran who was homeless with his four children until getting a hand from a Longview housing agency where he now works.

Chatterton was one of several speakers on a panel organized by the Low Income Housing Alliance and the Statewide Poverty Action Network that took place in a hearing room at the Legislature on Tuesday. It drew a few dozen people, including veterans, single mothers, and others who said they are worried the emerging state budget includes harsh cuts to Washington’s safety net, which is already rubbed thin following four years of steady cuts.

Among the funding requests sought by the two advocacy groups is $175 million for the Housing Trust Fund that finances low-income projects; securing or reinvesting $100 million in leftover funds in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program that provides small cash and child care grants; a Rapid Re-Housing Program that Gov. Jay Inslee is proposing as a new way to use some TANF money; $130 million for the Disability Lifeline, which provides housing vouchers, small cash grants and other resources for people temporarily disabled or who are waiting to be accepted into the federal Social Security disability program; and $6 million for a Washington Families Fund that mingles public and private money to serve homeless people.

Chatterton voiced support for placing $175 million into the state Housing Trust Fund and to ward off cuts to aid programs that help people like him get back on their feet. “We’re standing here to today to say we’re going to stop these cuts,” Chatterton said. “We’ve got to stop them. People need this assistance.”

Of course, what gets cut in the two-year state budget being drafted is still a bit of a mystery to the public, and most lawmakers. Top budget writers in the House and Senate have been working for months behind closed doors and looking for ways to balance state revenues and spending — and places are limited if they are going to put anything like $1 billion of new funds into K-12 schools while closing a $1.3 billion budget shortfall.

Advocates for the poor have said they fear a lack of other options means the Senate, whose majority leaders have sworn off tax hikes as an option, will propose deep cuts to welfare — grabbing unspent money from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program that advocates would like to see reinvested into benefits for families trying to work their way out of poverty.

The extra TANF funds are the result of lawmakers clamping down on eligibility, and House Republicans are already talking about clamping down more by reducing the lifetime benefits limit from five years to four.

The Senate Majority Coalition Caucus pledged to get to a balanced budget without raising taxes while placing millions of dollars of new money into higher education. House Democrats have a rival budget, which they plan to put out once the Senate’s version is on the table, and their leaders have said they know new revenues have to be part of the equation — a position Gov. Jay Inslee took last week when he unveiled a proposal for raising $1.2 billion of new money.

But lawmakers are saying little about what they might do in the spending plan for the next two years — except that the Majority Coalition’s Republican budget writer Andy Hill of Redmond is working across the aisle with minority Democrat Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam.

Hill’s spokesman said Tuesday they would not comment. Hargrove, pressed by a reporter in an office hallway, said a bipartisan Senate agreement was near.

“You’ll know when you know,” Hargrove said of the budget’s timing. Asked if they were still devising a bipartisan plan that could attract at least 25 votes to pass, he said: “We have been doing that all session. You’ll know whether that works or not shortly.”

A few lawmakers joined the advocates at the Capitol as the stories were told. Democratic Sen. Jeannie Darneille of Tacoma said there are fewer advocates for the poor in the Senate than in the House where she served 12 years. But she said the activists should push to get help to those who need it.

“What I know is homelessness can happen to anyone,” said Mindy Woods, a Navy veteran and mother who lives in Edmonds but told of becoming homeless with her daughter. She credited state programs and the YMCA’s Pathways for Women program for getting back into shelter.

Kate Baber, government relations manager for Poverty Action Network, said budget cuts in 2011 reduced the monthly TANF cash grant to $478 from $562 for a family of three, or to 30 percent of the federal poverty level. SPAN documents say the state’s firm 60-month lifetime limit on benefits was applied to families with kids in 2011, causing 28,340 people including 18,899 children to lose support during the recession.