Local charities could lose federal funds under Trump’s budget

Organizations across the North Fork and Riverhead dedicated to helping the poorest and neediest may lose federal funding due to cuts proposed in the 2018 federal budget “blueprint” submitted by President Donald Trump.

A soup kitchen that provides hot meals three nights a week, a nonprofit that teaches kids the dangers of drugs and addiction and a volunteer group that provides temporary shelter to the homeless during the winter are among the local groups that have relied on funding from the federal Community Development Block Grant program.

“It would be disastrous if we didn’t get community development block grant funding,” said Zona Stroy, chair of the Open Arms Care Center, a food pantry that operates out of First Baptist Church of Riverhead on Northville Turnpike.

She estimates that block grants account for about 25 percent of the center’s budget and that without them, “we could potentially be shutting down, and if not shutting down, then having a serious cutback in the amount of people we could serve.”

Open Arms is open two days a week “and feeds 500 to 600 households in any given year,” Ms. Stroy said.

Local officials in Riverhead and Southold towns have noted that available block grant funding has been dwindling in recent years. But if the president’s proposal is adopted, the CDBG program, which comes under the Department of Housing and Urban Development, would be discontinued.

According to the federal Office of Management and Budget, the president’s 2018 budget “eliminates funding the Community Development Block Grant program, a savings of $3 billion.”

“That funding has been whittling away for years,” said Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell. “At its peak, Community Block Grant funding exceeded $300,000 [annually]. It has been reduced each year and in 2017, we received $30,000.”

Southold Town allocated $25,000 of that money to repair a Town Hall elevator ramp and automatic door.

The president’s budget document did not speak well of the program.

“The federal government has spent over $150 billion on this block grant since its inception in 1974, but the program is not well-targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated results,” the president’s budget blueprint states. “The budget devolves community and economic development activities to the state and local level, and redirects federal resources to other activities.”

The president’s proposed budget also plans deep cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency and HUD while increasing funding for the military and Homeland Security.

Jennifer DiSiena, communications director for Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), acknowledged that the proposal as written would eliminate funding for CDBG. However, she said, the “budget request is just that: a request.”

“All funding for government agencies is initiated by Congress through the appropriations process,” she wrote in an email. “Regardless of who is in the White House and what’s in the presidential budget request, advocating for important funding that impacts the 1st Congressional District is one of Congressman Zeldin’s top priorities.”

In Riverhead, several organizations received $5,000 each in block grant funds this year, including the Bread and More Interfaith Nutrition Network soup kitchen at First Congregational Church; the Riverhead Community Awareness Program; Dominican Sisters Family Health Service, which helps seniors live independently; and Maureen’s Haven, which provides temporary winter shelter for the homeless at 23 participating houses of worship on the East End.

Riverhead Town received about $135,000 in funding this year and allocated $100,000 of it toward the Home Improvement Program, which provides home repair loans to people who fall within income guidelines.

Maureen’s Haven volunteer Jenny Fiore of East Quogue sorts through donated items Wednesday morning at the organization’s Riverhead offices. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

Maryann Gensler, executive director of Maureen’s Haven, said funding through the block grants is critical to its operation. The organization receives a total of $20,000 from four East End towns, and losing that funding could be crippling, she said.

“If this happens, it’s really going to be a problem,” Ms. Gensler said. “It’s something to be taken seriously and something hard to make up for. That’s a lot of fundraising.”

Maureen’s Haven hosts multiple fundraising events through the year, from an annual gala to a winery event and an ugly Christmas sweater party. Ms. Gensler said they’re considering a 5K fundraiser as well.

“I can say with certainty we’re very good stewards of our money,” she said.

Nicole Yvette, a 44 year-old from Riverhead, takes advantage of the shelter in the mornings to rest, charge her phone and gather donated belongings. Over two years ago she lost her home in a fire and flood and she has been slowly working to get back on her feet. She said she never thought she would be without a home for as long as she has.

“This is a good program,” she said of Maureen’s Haven.

Ms. Yvette spends much of her time looking for places to live and doing odd jobs to earn money. Her hopes are high that she will soon get back on her feet but she said she’s grateful for places like Maureen’s Haven.

The Bread and More INN, which serves hot meals to between 60 and 70 people each night, three nights a week year round, is also at risk.

“I think that, moving forward, it would require more fundraising on our part to try and make up that difference,” said co-president Judy Barth. “I think, probably, we’re going to see a lot of organizations that are going to have to privatize the funding, so to speak.”

She said while her organization already tries to streamline everything, it will require even more effort.

“This is a community, and this is taking care of those in the community, so hopefully, it will become a joint effort to keep everything open and running as before,” Ms. Barth said.

Bread and More operates on a $40,000 annual budget, so $5,000 in CDBG funding represents a significant chunk, she said.

“Typically, the funding is given to local organizations serving vital community functions that local government can’t, or shouldn’t, such as anti-hunger programs,” Mr. Russell said. “The loss of $30,000 to distribute to these groups may seem nominal but, to the groups themselves, the funding is critical. The needs haven’t gone away and the funding shouldn’t either.”

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said the town will continue to provide Meals on Wheels, which doesn’t receive CDBG money but which Mr. Walter fears may have its funding threatened as well.

But the CDBG funding the town distributes to other programs won’t be picked up by the town, he said.

“The town doesn’t have the ability to fund that, so all that will end,” he said. “But this is just the president’s budget, so who knows what it’s going to look like in the end.”

Riverhead CAP uses its block grand funding for counseling and prevention services for students and their families at Roanoke Avenue Elementary School, including substance abuse and bullying prevention programs, social skills groups, counseling and outreach programs, according to executive director Felicia Scocozza, who spoke at a Town Board hearing on CDBG funding in November.

She said 87 percent of the students at Roanoke Avenue quality for free and reduced price lunches, which is indicative of the poverty rate among their families.

Jacquelin Tarpey of Dominican Sisters Family Health Services told the Riverhead Town Board in November that her group provides light housekeeping, shopping, laundry and other services for senior citizens so they can remain at home rather than move into a nursing home or assisted-living facility.

And Jennifer LaMaina, a social worker with Maureen’s Haven, reported that 358 homeless individuals were provided with temporary housing between November and April 2016. On average, 49 people per night were given shelter, she said.

“Generally, they are working poor who have suffered setbacks like job loss, illness and loss of transportation or divorce,” she told the Town Board at a Nov. 1 hearing. “The other 50 percent of our guests are chronically ill homeless. They often face one or more serious issues, including mental illness, addiction or cognitive or developmental disabilities.”

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With Joe Werkmeister and Krysten Massa

Top photo: Nicole Yvette of Riverhead packs up items she received at Maureen’s Haven Wednesday morning. Ms. Yvette sleeps at different churches each night and wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to search for work and housing or to do odd jobs. She then goes to Maureen’s Haven to charge her phone and rest. (Credit: Krysten Massa)