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Local

County official: Anti-poverty services would cease without federal block grant funding

Department guides residents to find affordable housing, secure jobs

DeKALB – Joanne Dunbar, a family support specialist with the DeKalb County Community Action Department, said the services she provides to individuals and families in crisis are not a quick fix.

“It’s not like you come in and we put a Band-Aid on your problems,” Dunbar said. “This is long-term case management.”

But if the federal government discontinues the Community Services Block Grant – the agency’s primary funding source for anti-poverty services – Dunbar would be out of a job, and agency services would cease to exist.

Deanna Cada, executive director of the DeKalb County Community Mental Health Board, said the grant has been around for 50 years, and a long list of individuals on a national level have benefited from programs funded by it.

On a local level, between 75 and 100 people are assisted, and 800 to 1,000 people are referred to other services by the community action department.

“That’s all with a three-person staff,” Cada said.

In the 2018 grant year, DeKalb County received $257,276 from the Community Services Block Grant, which all goes to help people overcome poverty barriers. However, a fiscal 2019 budget proposal from President Donald Trump would eliminate the CSBG program.

Last month, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Springfield, met with the community action department and local leaders to get an idea of the local effect of cutting this funding.

Cada was blunt in describing what would happen.

“The program is gone, the department is gone and services are gone,” Cada said. “The county can’t pick this up.”

Cada said funding has slightly decreased in the past five or six years but has been pretty stable. At one point, former President Barack Obama lowered the amount of grant funding, which created a fairly significant drop, but it still was enough to maintain programming, Cada said.

“It’s adequate, but it doesn’t allow us to do more than what we have,” Cada said.

Anti-poverty services also are made possible through partnerships with a number of nonprofits, including Hope Haven, Safe Passage, the Ben Gordon Center, Elder Care Services and the Family Service Agency.

Some of the grant money helps pay two family support specialists who do intense assessments of income-eligible county residents to determine what services are required, whether it is family-centered, employment-related, budget-related, household emergencies, time management or applying for government services.

“The work these specialists do is really intense,” Cada said. “They’re partnering with people so they can help themselves out of poverty.”

The assessment process begins with a household stability assessment, through which a person’s education, employment mental health, health care, home stability and other factors are analyzed.

Residents then are asked to rank their situation on a scale of one to 10, and a specialist will do the same.

“The conversation is really detailed,” Cada said. “At the end of that assessment, the family support specialists have good ideas on a resident’s needs.”

Dunbar said finding affordable housing and securing a stable job are two common problems in DeKalb County.

“There’s plenty of resource information we can provide to them, but it’s up to them to utilize it,” Dunbar said.

Sometimes, residents who get a full-time job or find affordable housing still have budgeting problems, so Dunbar said she will offer budgeting advice, inform residents where food pantries are and give other supplementary help. These residents might rely on community action assistance for years.

“[Specialists] do this because they love it and not because they’re making a lot of money,” Cada said. “It takes a special person to fulfill that role.”

A list of testimonials from individuals who have benefited from community action services is available on the department’s website.

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