Advocates say budget cuts target most vulnerableby Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis — Homeless advocates say Gov. Tim Pawlenty's plan for unallotment will hit their clients particularly hard.
The governor is wiping out the state's health insurance program for low-income single people and drastically reducing funding for group housing, emergency assistance, programs for vulnerable youth and rental refunds. The cuts total $122 million.
Homeless people typically rely on all of these programs to help them leave their lives on the streets.
Robert Fischer is in his early 50s and feeling better than he has in years. He has a small apartment in Minneapolis, regular meals and good health care. After years of homelessness his life is finally calm. But Fischer figures it won't last.
His state-sponsored health insurance will end next year and he'll have to deal with his depression, degenerative disk disease and sleep apnea on his own.
"On my refrigerator I've got a little marker-pen and I've got the date, February 28, 2010, D-day, and I've got my plan for detox."
By "detox," he means weaning himself from all his medications by the end of February, so that when he loses his health insurance on March 1, he'll have a better chance of coping with his health situation.
He's already started. He has cut his anti-depressant dose by a quarter, and he's only taking half of another medication to avoid quitting cold turkey.
"I just feel I don't have a choice because if it gets cut, I'm going to be in big trouble. Just being cut off like that would put me into some severe situations."
Going off his medication isn't necessarily life-threatening for Fischer, but it will likely affect the quality of his life, and maybe even the stability of his housing.
His neighbor Cayla Pierson, who lives in the same subsidized housing, is convinced her life is in jeopardy. Pierson takes medication to treat her bipolar disorder. Without the meds she becomes self-destructive.
"Stuff like this and this and that. I start cutting and doing things to hurt myself."
Dark scars carved in parallel lines run the length of Pierson's forearms. They look like little railroad tracks.
Even with her medication, she's not fully able to resist the urge to hurt herself. She points to a fresh tear on her knuckles, which she got earlier that morning when she punched her fist into a mirror.
"It's getting a lot worse now," she says. "I've started doing things that even scare me. So, yeah, if my medical gets cut off I have no idea what I'm going to do. I really don't."
Wilder Research estimates there are at least 9,200 homeless people in Minnesota on any given night of the week. Many of them suffer from some sort of depression, or are otherwise incapable of working or paying rent without the support of medications and regular doctors' visits.
The loss of state-subsidized health insurance has gotten much of the attention in recent weeks. But Liz Kuoppala, interim executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, says there are many other cuts that will hurt homeless people as much or more.
The governor eliminated emergency general assistance funding, which Kuoppala says helps low-income and disabled people pay for basic items, such as a utility bill during an emergency situation. She says he also reduced funding for group residential housing offered by homeless shelters.
"I was just shocked at the governor's unallotments," she says. "It felt like he looked for the most vulnerable people, and figured out how to just pull the rug out from under them."
Some federal stimulus dollars can be tapped to help families in emergencies, but Kuoppala says many individuals wouldn't qualify for federal help.
Joe Pederson, executive director of Lakes and Prairies Community Action Partnership in Moorhead, says if Pawlenty wants to end long-term homelessness, a pledge he made several years ago, these cuts do not help.
"This is now his campaign to create long-term homelessness," he says. "If you cut the supports out from underneath people, that's exactly what you'll do is create long-term homelessness."
At the apartment building where Robert Fischer and Cayla Pierson live, 62-year-old Sam Joyner is angry. He will also lose his health insurance next year unless he can convince the Social Security Administration to give him benefits. He doesn't think it's fair that the state is leaving him in the lurch.
"We've worked. We've paid taxes in the past," he says. "And then, as you get on in years and something happens and you get ailments, it's like, 'Oh, the heck with you. We'll just pass a law and now we don't have to help you out or anything.'"
- All Things Considered, 06/25/2009, 5:24 p.m.