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Programs may lose their reach

An impending decision in Washington, D.C., has hit close to home, with two Duluth programs learning they probably won't get some of the federal money they'd sought to keep kids off the street.

An impending decision in Washington, D.C., has hit close to home, with two Duluth programs learning they probably won't get some of the federal money they'd sought to keep kids off the street.

Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, which operates street outreach and transitional housing programs for homeless teens and young adults in Duluth, is one of many agencies across the state and nation that will be affected by a one-year moratorium on "earmarks" -- special projects tucked into spending bills -- that Democrats plan to impose when they take control Jan. 4.

Originally, $250,000 was earmarked for the Street Outreach and Renaissance Transitional Housing programs in Duluth, but Congress failed to pass the budget, leaving it for the new session.

"The 109th Congress didn't get the job done and left a mess for the 110th Congress to clean up," said John Schadl, communications director for Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn. "There is too much critical work that needs to be done right now to try and revisit what the 109th Congress didn't do, so we have to push ahead at these levels."

Lutheran Social Service was counting on the federal money for the two programs' $350,000 annual operating budget.

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The Renaissance Transitional Housing program provides housing and an array of skill-building help, from resume-writing to informal cooking classes, to six homeless young people, said John Moline, director of counseling and youth services for Lutheran Social Service in Duluth. The Street Outreach program is staffed by two workers who interact and build relationships with kids living on the streets.

Both programs aim to get 16- to 21-year-olds off the street and onto a path to a successful future. The service is vital in an area that has 50 to 100 kids staying outside of their homes on any given night, Moline said.

Without the money, the programs will have to work harder to secure money through smaller grants and donations to stay afloat. Both programs are operating with reduced staffing after losing a sizeable federal grant a few years ago.

"It is a serious loss, of course," Moline said about the funding. "It makes it harder to be successful at what we do, when we have to keep cutting programs to hang on."

In brighter times, the Renaissance Transitional Housing program had money to take the youths to baseball games or parks to build a sense of community and fun into their experience with the program, said program manager Lynn Gerlach-Collard. The program also was able to employ two full-time staff members to give clients more individual attention.

When the program lost the federal grant several years ago, staffing was reduced to one full-time person and all money for activities was lost. Congress' expected action means the Renaissance will no longer have any secure source of money, Gerlach-Collard said.

"That money would have kept us floating with basic-needs support for the kids," she said.

Caty Ponchott, 17, is one teen who benefits from the program. She spent a year and a half bouncing between friends' houses and sleeping on the street after getting kicked out of her house at 15.

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"It was kind of crazy," Ponchott said. "It was hard just having to deal with myself."

Ponchott found her way into the Renaissance Transitional Housing program about five months ago. The teenager, who used to spend nights doing drugs and many days ditching class, is now sober and on her way to completing her GED. She is thinking about enrolling in cosmetology school.

"It has helped me get my life on track, basically," Ponchott said of Renaissance. "It's a safe place."

The program has helped dozens of other teens get out of homelessness and stay out, Gerlach-Collard said.

"There are a lot of places kids on the street can end up," she said. "These programs catch them at a really critical time and help put them on a positive path to becoming productive tax-paying adults."

Schadl said the federal Health and Human Services Department, which received the intended earmark money when Congress failed to pass the budget, still could choose to allocate money to Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota.

"The cash for earmarks is essentially still out there, so they can apply for it, but it will be up to the HHS's discretion to decide whether or not they get it," Schadl said. "Nothing was written into law."

Schadl said Oberstar planned to advocate for money on behalf of the organization.

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"I think Oberstar has championed this as best he can," Moline said. "Hopefully, with the change in Congress we'll get more funding in the future."

SARAH HORNER covers K-12 education. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5342 or by e-mail at shorner@duluthnews.com .

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