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Needy, allies see welfare reform as rising storm

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Esther Reaves thinks about it when she opens Manna House on weekday mornings, stepping over the homeless men sleeping outside the soup kitchen's doors. It's on social worker Jeff Singer's mind every time he meets with Harold Haddix, an alcoholic finally off the streets who may end up living in abandoned cars again.

"It's like a disaster or a hurricane is coming," says Peter Rolph of the Maryland Food Committee.

The storm they see brewing is called welfare reform. Unpredictable and difficult to track, it sits just south of Baltimore, stalled over Capitol Hill. The House and Senate have passed two versions of bills intended to overhaul the welfare system and now are trying to reconcile their differences.

But those who work with the poor and needy here say they can already predict the outcome: dire, or more dire.

Women and children who have depended on welfare for years will face a future in which it won't be there. Families who use food stamps for their groceries may have less to spend. Addicts and alcoholics who survive on federal grants may be cut off, along with legal immigrants and some children.

The inevitable result, social workers say, will be more people living on the streets, lining up at soup kitchens, begging for change.

"We're going to see a lot more clients and there's going to be less we can do for them," said Peter Sabonis, a lawyer with the Homeless Persons Representation Project. "Already, I have fewer and fewer tools with which to help people."

Grim preview

In Maryland, the loss of one relatively small program has given social service workers a grim preview of things to come.

This summer, the state eliminated the Disability Assistance and Loan Program. It had provided $157 monthly grants for poor and disabled adults, many of whom depended on that money to pay the rent for subsidized apartments or single rooms.

Less than two months later, a survey by a business group, the Downtown Partnership, showed homelessness was up 65 percent in Baltimore. Health Care for the Homeless, a city clinic, saw a 57 percent rise in demand after the program was eliminated.

No one can prove the two are related, but workers are convinced of the connection, and the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. At Manna House, Ms. Reaves saw the aftermath in the growing number of men sleeping on her doorstep, and in the line of breakfast-goers that sometimes extends the length of the block.

All this at a time when Manna House's parent agency, Midtown Churches Community Association, has less and less money to help ever needier cases. Its budget, about $230,000, is one-fifth of what it was five years ago, forcing Midtown to shut down the three emergency shelters it once ran.

"As far as welfare reform, I'm all for it," said Ms. Reaves, the director of Manna House. "I'm just not sure how we're going to handle it. I'm not sure how any nonprofit is going to handle it. This is what causes burnout. My staff is down to the bare bones."

On this day, Ms. Reaves had just lost her cook. In walked Roderick Adams, 36, whose phone had just been cut off. Although he works 37 to 60 hours a week unloading trucks, Mr. Adams can't make ends meet with a $4.25 hourly wage. He signed up as the new cook on the spot, for $5 an hour. Perhaps with two jobs, he'll be able to get his phone turned back on.

Ready to work

"I want to work," said Mr. Adams, who has gone through two state-sponsored job training programs, but always found jobs on his own. "That's how I was brought up. I wasn't brought up to take a government check."

Most of those eating here say the same thing. Brendadine King, bTC 46, once worked as a dietitian's aide at Sinai Hospital and area nursing homes. Sidetracked by a drinking problem, then diagnosed as manic-depressive, she also suffers from arthritis. But if the government cuts off her $458 Supplemental Security Income (SSI) check, she says she's ready to go to work.

"I have a high school diploma," she said earnestly. "I haven't worked since 1985, but I'm a go-getter. I could do something."

It is a refrain one hears throughout the city, as if even the hardest cases know this is the rhetoric expected of them: I will be self-reliant, I can take care of myself. Those who help them are less confident.

At Health Care for the Homeless, Ernest Barber, 52 and on SSI for almost 20 years, said he is sure he could find janitorial work again. Still, he was unsettled by the idea that the federal government might cut him from the rolls.

The federal government is expected to drop those who receive the disability payments because of drug or alcohol addiction, which would apply to about 3,000 recipients across Maryland. Some may be able to get the benefits back for other medical problems.

"You say I might lose it?" Mr. Barber asked social worker Lauren Siegel, who was sitting by his side.

"We don't know yet," she assured him. "We're just worried."

Another SSI recipient, Harold Haddix, 55, spent years on the street after alcoholism made it impossible for him to keep a job. A former police officer who also has worked as a coal miner and restaurant manager, he was living in an abandoned Mercedes when he first met Jeff Singer, then a social worker with the Department of Social Services.

Over the years, Mr. Singer moved on to Health Care for the Homeless and Mr. Haddix finally moved into an apartment on Broadway. He never actually sees his monthly check. Mr. Singer is the designated payee, and he handles Mr. Haddix's bills, making sure he doesn't have cash to buy alcohol. Somehow, Mr. Haddix still manages to drink.

At first, Mr. Haddix was full of bravado when asked if he could live on the streets again. He said he would go back to sleeping in cars -- although probably not a Mercedes -- and eating out of Dumpsters. Eventually, he acknowledged he probably couldn't survive.

"At my age, I don't know how long I'll last," he said. "I can't hide from it. I know it's right in front of my eyes."

Those most likely to be affected by welfare reform in the long term are women in one of the best-known entitlement programs -- Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

Preparing women

Across the state, the Maryland Food Committee has been calling meetings with these women, hoping to prepare them for such possibilities as smaller checks, fewer food stamps and the day when welfare payments will stop altogether.

Last week, Daphne Herling, an organizer with the food committee, met with six AFDC clients from Baltimore County at the Eastern Family Resource Center in Essex. She wanted them to consider the implications of the coming changes -- the necessity of finding work, which means finding affordable day care as well.

"Are you making it OK now?" she asked the group, women ranging in age from the late teens to early 50s. "Noooooooo," the women chorused back. How much of a cut could they sustain without losing their apartments?

"Twenty dollars," shot back Yolanda Boston, a 25-year-old mother of three who lives in the Towson area. Of the $439 she receives every month, all of it goes for housing. She depends on food stamps to feed her three sons.

What will happen if they lose their benefits completely, or see their food stamps cut in half? The women shouted out their answers: More crime, more fraud, more children in foster care. Parents may ask older children to leave school early so they can earn extra money.

Ms. Herling kept telling the women that they had power, that it wasn't too late for them to try to make changes, or get involved in the political process. She told them of women like themselves who could sit down and talk policy with U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes or testify at hearings in Annapolis.

The women stared back, arms folded, faces skeptical. For all that effort, their body language said, the storm was still coming.

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