I have the privilege of serving on the Board of Advisors for Families in Transition in Seminole County Florida. This is the agency created through the McKinney Vento Act to provide support to homeless school children. This year we are serving 2026 children at last count who have no place to call home. This problem has gotten worse, even as we come out of the recession, Florida is still experiencing an 11 percent increase in child homelessness. These are not statistics, they are children. If we don't help them to get out of poverty, their chances of success are lower than those who are not in poverty.
One bright light in the fight against poverty and homelessness has been the AmeriCorps VISTA program. AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) is a program of The Corporation for National and Community Service designed to challenge Americans to engage in service to meet the growing poverty related needs resulting from the economic downturn.
The non-profit I work with currently has 5 VISTAs helping us to build capacity and scale up our jobs programs to meet the needs of the unemployed and underemployed. When we enlisted in this program, it was with a 3 year plan.
That plan is now threatened.
The government outsources some of the Nation's biggest problems to non-profit organizations. Even governmental organizations work with non-profits to get their work done. Poverty, homelessness, joblessness, mental health, many veterans programs, hunger programs and more will be affected by sequestration and budget cuts. The AmeriCorps VISTA program is on hold for renewals. At this point, we don't know if we will be able to get additional VISTAs to continue what we have started.
For Families in Transition, this means only being able to cover the basic services. It means the highest need, highest risk children will not get the supportive services they need. It means that when non-profits need all the help they can get to provide resources to help families become independent, services will need to be cut.
AmeriCorps VISTA works. It is working for Christian HELP moving the needle forward to help more families find jobs, providing training and building capacity. It is working for Families in Transition, providing resources, mentors and the ability to help more families above and beyond the requirements of the law. AmeriCorps VISTA has many accomplishments including:
• 1,126,000 Community Volunteers Mobilized by VISTAs
• $187 million Cash and In-Kind Resources raised to support organizations using VISTAs
• $34,710 Cash and In-Kind Resources raised per VISTA
• 115,000 Veterans and Military Families Served
• 2.5 Million Disadvantaged Youth receiving services
I am one of those people who want to make sure my tax dollars are used wisely. Cutting services to the poor will harm us more in the long run than it will save us money. While I do agree, we must curb abuses to the system and some of the programs that exist do cause disincentives for people to move forward, I also firmly believe that we as a society need to do all we can to provide education and support for people who do want to get out of poverty. The AmeriCorps VISTA program is an excellent investment to help us to achieve the goal of lifting people out of poverty.
According to Beth Davalos, of the Families in Transition Program in Seminole County Florida:
The issue of child homelessness can no longer be tackled by just one entity. The community, the state, and nation must address child-homelessness in order to ensure that every child has an equal chance of achieving academic success resulting in self-sustainability once they reach adulthood. In addition, with less resources and higher needs, collaboration at all levels from individual communities to corporations and the government is essential in lowering the number of children affected by this growing epidemic. The loss of federal funds to the AmeriCorps VISTA program to assist with homeless education in devastating.
My focus is to help people get jobs and to get back on their feet financially. We were so excited to be able to bring in VISTAs to expand our programs and help more people. The outcomes have been so positive. We could not have done all that we have over the last 6 months without the support of the VISTA volunteers we have on our team. With the volunteers, we have succeeded in being a finalist for a Business Plan Competition with the University of Miami (competition in April). We've also written a curriculum, secured community and corporate partners, launched a Jobs Initiative, planned and set up a capital campaign to secure larger operational space to meet the needs of more families with jobs and food and provided mentors and resources on site at a local elementary school for homeless and disadvantaged students.
Cutting programs to the poor is not the answer. Yes, we need to make cuts, yes we need to spend less, but we need to make sure we are taking care of our own and helping those who are at highest risk, especially our children.