Losing 'non-essential' services hurts

  • Article by: JAMES WALSH, JEAN HOPFENSPERGER and MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 3, 2011 - 12:02 AM

The shutdown has cut funding for thousands of Minnesotans' quality of life -- from child care to housing help.

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Rhoda Nelson talked with a sign interpreter about how she teaches different ways of speaking with her hands.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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At the Alexandra House, a women's shelter in Blaine that depends on state money, executive director Connie Moore has begun spending the shelter's savings to keep the doors open. The desperate move won't buy much time.

"We're gambling right now,'' Moore said. "If we don't get reimbursed, the impact will be long-lived.''

In St. Paul, Rhonda Nelson, who is deaf and blind, just lost her eyes and ears to the world. The aide who helps her go grocery shopping, to doctor's appointments, to the post office and other appointments has been deemed non-essential in the state government shutdown.

For someone who already spends most of her days in dark silence, losing the service is heartbreaking. "I'm basically stuck at home," said Nelson, 65, a former disabilities educator from St. Paul, speaking through an interpreter.

Across Minnesota, the shutdown that began Friday is more than a story of inconvenience for the needy or vulnerable who depend on state services or spending. Many of their lives are being upended.

Programs that help get families out of homeless shelters, allow single parents to stay in the workforce, provide safe havens for battered women and allow those with disabilities to enjoy everyday life have suddenly lost funding and are teetering on the edge of closure.

Nelson, like roughly 150 other blind and deaf Minnesotans, has lost her state-funded "support service provider." These are assistants who don't offer health care or formal interpreting but act instead as the eyes and ears of deaf-blind Minnesotans when they are out in the community.

She's done her best to prepare for the new hardship. "I tried to think of everything,'' Nelson said. "I have checks in the envelopes for my bills in July and August so they're ready to go. I stocked up on food. Got my prescriptions. ... It's stressful."

The aide she has lost helped her find food at the grocery store, complete forms at medical offices, even joined her in a YMCA pool to ensure her safety as she exercises. She will continue to receive help in bathing and getting dressed, and can get rides to appointments with Metro Mobility -- the transportation service pledged to continue offering rides even if it loses its state reimbursements.

But she is otherwise left alone, and at the mercy of those at the Capitol.

"I don't think it's morally ethical to do this," Nelson said. "I don't know what to do.''

Lawmakers on both sides agreed that services for some of the most vulnerable Minnesotans needed to continue, and they approved funding in this year's budget bills for them. Nelson thought the issue was settled, but areas of consensus fell victim to the larger disagreement over final spending figures and revenue sources.

In Brainerd, Carole Paschelke has owned and run her own business, a child-care center in her home, for almost 10 years. But at midnight Thursday, up to half her monthly income disappeared.

Minnesota cut off child care subsidies for thousands of low-income families when the shutdown took effect. Now self-employed daycare providers like Paschelke are struggling with a dilemma: Turn away children, or keep caring for them essentially for free.

"I'm not turning anybody away," said Paschelke, who takes care of three children on subsidized care. "I'm not getting paid for it, but it's not going to do me or my families any good to not take their children," she said. "I'm hoping to be able to weather the storm."

Others are struggling to keep the doors open.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," said Maria Vega, who owns Little World of Angels Daycare in St. Paul. Seven of the 12 children in her care get state subsidies, she said. Many have single mothers who can't afford it otherwise. She could lose $1,000 a week, but she's torn. "How can I say to the parents or kids that I'm going to close because you can't pay me?" she said.

Last year, more than 16,000 Minnesota children got monthly care subsidies. In recent weeks, the state notified daycare providers that they may not get paid, even after the fact, for care provided during a shutdown. Some providers are turning to creative, if desperate, measures.

Angie Plantenberg, who runs a home child-care center in Brainerd, asked parents to sign a pledge to pay her next year -- when they get their tax refunds. "It's the only time I could think of when they would have money," she said.

In the meantime, she's got bills to pay and 11 of the 12 children in her program are on state subsidies.

"If I shut my doors," she said, "where are they going to go?"

In Minneapolis, Jalissa Wylle, Daniel Evans and their 15-month-old daughter, Jania, were just days away from moving into their own apartment last week. They'd been living for nearly three months at the People Serving People shelter downtown.

A state housing program would pay utilities and up to three months' rent while they looked for work. Then the shutdown began, and it all went away.

"We were about to get on our feet,'' Evans said. "Now, what do we do?"

Warren Wolfe contributed to this report. James Walsh • 612-673-7428 Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511 Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384

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