Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Safety Net: Why are we still losing the strands?

One of the background themes in the 2008 Presidential (a theme providing significant help to the Democrats) is the growing national consciousness of how frail the metaphoric "safety net" is that protects ordinary Americans against both routine and extraordinary hazards.

Since the late 1970s a popular revolt against taxes has been promoted on the ground that government wastes your money giving people who don't deserve it, help they don't need. Perhaps the flooding of New Orleans when the levy system failed and government at all levels abandoned the people marks the point where denial was no longer possible.

Yet in the midst of this growing consciousness, and in the most progressive of American cities we are still losing vital pieces of the remaining safety net. Case in point is the St. Anthony Foundation's Marian Residence for Women in San Francisco. As reported in today's SFChron by Marisa Lagos, residence, providing shelter and transition housing for homeless women, is about to close in the face of what the Foundation expects will be the severe challenge of budget cuts and increasing demand.

The shelter opened in 1983, as the first great recession of the Reagan era (and the steepest drop since the 30s) rocked America and revealed the visible homelessness that has been a feature of our urban streets ever since. Resources like the Marian residences are rare. Women, who make up a relatively small fraction of the homeless population, are often the most vulnerable in ordinary shelters. Trapped by poverty, domestic violence, and the appeals of drug escapism, such women increasingly end up being pulled into our jail and prison systems.

According to Lagos this gem of a program is being slashed not because need for it is declining, but because its likely to grow;

The program is just the latest victim in a long line of social programs being cut across the nation because of the worsening economy and the worldwide food shortage.

Francis Aviani, a spokeswoman for the 57-year-old St. Anthony Foundation, said it was a difficult decision for the nonprofit's leaders. By next spring, St. Anthony's also will shutter and sell the Farm, an organic dairy farm in Petaluma that is run by 42 men recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.

St. Anthony's board of directors, faced with more demand, higher food prices and other rising costs, decided in April to shutter Marian Residence and the Farm so the foundation can focus on its core mission - offering basic services such as meals and clothing. "Marian Residence is a very beautiful program," Aviani said, "but it also takes money to run a program of that caliber. We have to brace ourselves for what is around the corner."

Resources like the Marian center stand at the center of a complex web of social problems including mental illness, homelessness, violence against women, over incarceration. If you want to make progress on any of those issues you need to be multiplying the number of Marian centers, not slashing them.


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