Augusta aid groups brace for cuts

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Proposed federal belt-tightening would mean major funding cuts to many local charities that have relied on the money to provide services to some of Augusta's most vulnerable residents.

Iesha Jackson, 6, tries to solve a math problem at New Bethlehem Community Center. The center, along with other area agencies, will have to cut services if they do not receive enough federal funding.   Jackie Ricciardi/Staff
Jackie Ricciardi/Staff
Iesha Jackson, 6, tries to solve a math problem at New Bethlehem Community Center. The center, along with other area agencies, will have to cut services if they do not receive enough federal funding.

The current federal budget proposal would slash the city's Housing and Urban Development funding 66 percent, said City Administrator Fred Russell. The city received nearly $2.14 million for community and housing development last year. More than two dozen charities received assistance, and several others were able to use funds to build and rehab homes for low-cost housing.

"If Congress does not appropriate funding for us, we will have to discontinue many of the other services we provide," Gloria Lewis, the executive director of CSRA Economic Opportunity Authority said in an e-mail to The Augusta Chronicle .

The CSRA EOA does housing counseling, helps homeless families find shelter, operates Head Start programs in several counties, and helps low-income people who need food, help with energy bills and weatherization. It was budgeted to receive nearly $30,000 in HUD funding last year.

A Macon, Ga.-based company that worked with CSRA to provide housing counseling will close its Augusta office because its funding was cut. HomeFirst, set up to help people learn the ropes to buy homes and save others from foreclosure, will close March 31.

HomeFirst opened in 2009 after receiving more than $238,000 in HUD funding and was intended to be a cornerstone of the city's plan to turn historic but blighted neighborhoods into thriving communities.

The money given to HomeFirst was supposed to be used only for services inside the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods. But as a certified housing counseling center, HomeFirst had to offer its services to everyone in the community. According to HomeFirst, it assisted 31 clients in buying homes, more than 400 families with credit troubles, and about 800 families facing foreclosure.

Because of that violation, HUD demanded the return of almost $300,000 last fall, money that the city's director of Housing and Community Development, Chester A. Wheeler III, refunded by shifting funding and decreasing budgets over a three-year period.

HomeFirst was to receive $125,000 in 2011, but at the first Augusta Commission meeting of the year, Wheeler presented a motion that cut the housing counseling funds because "this project is no longer needed."

In an e-mail this week, Wheeler wrote that the $125,000 could not be funded because the federal agency restricted its use to the revitalization area.

Such services are available from other groups, he wrote.

"The housing counseling and foreclosure prevention services are very important to our community, so we will continue to provide some of these services on a smaller scale," Lewis said .

Other nonprofits are looking at the possibility of federal funding cuts with dread.

"I don't know what we're going to do. It's a scary time, but I'm very thankful to the community," said Aimee Hall, the executive director of SafeHomes of Augusta.

Charities are looking at the loss of state fund, too, she said, and she learned last week that a $75,000 grant that enabled SafeHomes to provide prolonged assistance to about 40 people who have escaped from abusive homes would not be continued this year, Hall said.

Overall, her agency helped 1,400 new clients last year. If it can't help, the risk is that victims of domestic violence go back home or end up on the streets, she said.

Golden Harvest Food Bank used $13,000 in federal money to run a special program to feed more than 300 senior citizens in the area, said Mike Firmin, its executive director. Throughout Georgia, the food bank has already had to cut its services for the elderly by two-thirds.

Government money and personal contributions are way down and the cost of food is climbing, Firmin said. The food bank has seen a 17 percent increase in the number of families struggling to put food on the table.

"We see challenges on all fronts," he said.

Georgia Legal Services -- which provides legal services for civil court services -- is also caught between the increased need and decreased funding, said Kenneth Jones, the director of the Augusta office. Last year, his office used $10,000 from stimulus funding to help people in danger of becoming homeless. His office is still helping people facing evictions, but that's just part of about 900 cases that he and three other attorneys juggle in 13 counties.


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