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Think Twice Before You Slice

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Recent news reports point to a region recovering from the economic crisis. But our region cannot bounce back until everyone recovers.

Consider the Waltons, who are among 150 families staying at hotels because this winter D.C. General family shelter filled up so quickly the city was forced to place families in hotels. "It's been months and it feels like we've been forgotten," says Charmaine Walton. "I don't know what the rest of the shelter system is like, but when you're in a hotel, you don't talk to anyone, you don't see anybody, you have no sense that anyone is working to help you. I lie awake at night fearing for my daughter. If she's not eating properly, how will she focus in school? I feel like my child is being robbed of a childhood. Not just my child, but all children need a stable place to grow up healthy."

The Waltons are among an increasing number of homeless families in our region. As residents of our community continue to lose their homes or look for work, the need for services such as food, shelter, affordable housing and health care continue to increase and exceed the capacity of local nonprofit service providers. For years, nonprofit programs and services have multiplied the impact of county and state funds through volunteers, and donated goods and services. Instead of cutting back, it's time to protect that investment.

Yet, proposed local government budget cuts threaten our region's fragile safety-net, hurting individuals and families who were already struggling and those who are in crisis as a result of the downturn. Investing in critical safety-net programs will assure our region continues on the path to recovery.

In the coming days, legislators in the District, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, Alexandria and Fairfax will approve their FY 2013 budgets. The Center for Nonprofit Advancement and Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington -- which together represent more than 1,000 member organizations in D.C., suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia -- urge local officials to "think twice before you slice" safety-net funding.

We understand that this year's budgets are slim because resources are tight. However, local nonprofit organizations that provide basic human services are already operating at bare bones levels after years of government cuts and increased need. This should not become the new normal. The region cannot fully recover if we continue to have large pockets of need.

Cutting human services programs in the short term will cost our region more money in the long term. Permanent housing, for instance, is far less expensive than shelters and motels. (Housing First, a model which has been embraced by every jurisdiction in the region, is one example of a long term solution. The Housing First model is based on providing housing first, then combining that housing with supportive treatment services in the areas of mental and physical health, substance abuse, education, and employment.)

In the coming weeks, as jurisdictions near the budget finish line, we encourage them to follow in the footsteps of Arlington County, which last month approved a budget that provided funds for the Affordable Housing Investment Fund, the Housing Grants Program, the Permanent Supportive Housing Program and Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program, among other programs. The county board also added funding for the Arlington Food Assistance Center, Arlingtonians Meeting Emergency Needs, the Arlington Free Clinic, Alexandria Neighborhood Health Services, Inc., Arlington Street People's Assistance Network and BUGATA (tenant assistance program). In the words of one legislator, "We want to ensure that the people who work in Arlington can also afford to live there." That should be the goal in every jurisdiction from Prince George's to Prince William.

Writing on the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless blog recently, Charmaine Walton said: "To have a family on the street is unacceptable. This is the nation's capital. This is the powerhouse of the world, and we're not going to provide for our children? That's an embarrassment." Let's make sure Charmaine Walton -- and all the Waltons in our region - are part of the recovery.

Chuck Bean is President of the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington and Glen O'Gilvie is CEO of the Center for Nonprofit Advancement. "Think Twice Before You Slice" is a joint project of the two organizations.