Photos by Jim Bass,

The diminishing horizon
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently proposed a state budget for 2010-2011. The segments of society that took the biggest budget hits in 2009, those groups that are the most vulnerable and the least powerful, are again directly in the bull’s-eye of even more severe budget cuts. That leaves a gaping hole in the safety net of government programs that were the last resources available to individuals struggling to survive. Stepping up to the challenge of softening the fiscal blows are local nonprofit organizations. Ventura County can consider itself lucky to be the home of some very dedicated groups.

These organizations are themselves weathering the economic storm of the century. But remarkable leadership combined with creative flexibility and a large increase in community goodwill are keeping these nonprofit groups afloat and even expanding their reach. There is hope and there is help.

The nonprofit group California Budget Project has crunched the employment numbers and summarized what they really mean. There is currently the same number of jobs in the state as there were at the turn of the century in 2000. This, despite the fact there are now 3.3 million additional working-age residents.

As to how productive that potential work force is, fewer than three out of five working-age adults are employed. You have to go back to 1977 to revisit that surprisingly low level of employment. Although all sectors of the job market have been slammed, two of the three most affected were the construction and financial industries. Those are two of the most important segments of Ventura County’s economy.

For those who have lost their jobs, more than one out of four was still looking for work after six months. That is the highest level ever recorded in the state. Only half of those who were unemployed in California (50.6 percent) during the first quarter of 2009 received unemployment insurance benefits, according to California Budget Project‘s Key Findings report. It stated that 37 other states had a higher rate of unemployed residents who qualified to received unemployment insurance.

Finally, California is rapidly losing its middle class. Workers’ hourly wages have continued to lose purchasing power during this recession, as the gap between low-wage and high-wage earners has been widening for an entire generation. The wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers in California saw their adjusted gross income increase at 13 times the rate of middle-income taxpayers. Even before the current recession picked up speed, in 2007 the wealthiest 1 percent of the country’s workers had the lion’s share of the earned income. That share of the wealth at the tippy-top of the highest-wage earners was larger only once in history, and that was in 1928.

What is true for the nation is now amplified for this state. When California can’t pay its bills, funding for the individual counties is drastically reduced. When that funding is no longer available, the nonprofit organizations are left without the resources to continue to help those in need. Fundraising has been difficult across the board for these groups, primarily because companies and individuals who have been the backbone of donations are also hurting and therefore must give less, a different definition of the trickle-down theory.

It starts with a bag of groceries
Bonnie Weigel has been the executive director of FOOD Share in Ventura County for about a year. When she began the job, she said, things were tough for county residents. “I thought, ‘Oh, it’s only going to get better, right?’ ”
“It’s tough and it’s going to continue to be really challenging for most of us,” Weigel said, “but the good that is coming from this is worth the pain, almost like childbirth. Because when it is all said and done, we are going to be better for it. I’m seeing that already.”

The “good” to which Weigel refers is an increased awareness and sensitivity to others in the community who may be having a difficult time. She said the widespread pain of lost jobs, reduced hours, cuts in pay, elimination of benefits and other hardships has seeped deeply into the middle class. It could be your neighbor or someone in your family, but nearly everyone knows someone who has endured some loss.

“When you think about the household income that is needed to live here in Ventura County,” Weigel said, “it’s no wonder that so many people need that first step which is food. I think the community is realizing how fragile most of us are and how very easy it is to teeter into that area very quickly where you go from having everything be OK to nothing.”

Weigel tells the story of one family that received groceries for only two meals a week. That helped to pay for gas for the car so as to keep a job, which, in turn, allowed the family to continue to pay their rent. “It is a lot easier to provide somebody a bag of groceries than it is to cover their rent.”

There has also been an increase in the number of people who are now volunteering. “It is good for them; they find it is energizing and gives them perspective and a grace as well. It has left an impression that they will take with them,” Weigel said.

The need for food has increased dramatically. “When I started last year, we had 41,000 clients,” Weigel said. “We’re at 54,700 friends every single month. That’s almost a sellout at Dodger Stadium. That is how many people FOOD Share helps every month.”

One dollar provides $7.15 worth of groceries from FOOD Share. Seven cents of every donated dollar goes to running the organization and the rest goes to the food program, primarily because of the enormous volunteer effort. With the price of groceries continuing to spiral upwards, this matters.

“I could do a whole poverty conference on the inequitable distribution of food,” Weigel said. “Food costs are now crazy.” She said small steps such as growing vegetables at home in containers can help provide nutrition at practically no cost. She encourages people to brown bag their lunch once a week and donate the money they would have spent to buy lunch to a food pantry. Or when the fruit in your backyard ripens and there is more than your family can possibly eat, just call FOOD Share and they will send out volunteers to pick it and take it away.

2If you have your health …
Under the present state budget, health care for the poor has been drastically cut back. Specifically, Medi-Cal programs were pared, eligibility was tightened, premiums were raised, and some benefits were completely eliminated. More than $2 billion was cut from the state’s health programs.

At least two million Californians were affected when many Medi-Cal benefits were wiped out. Services no longer being provided include dental care, hearing and speech services, eyeglasses and psychological services. The county staffs that administer those programs were reduced, including staff to help families navigate the system to receive benefits.

 Even those who were willing to purchase high-priced state-sponsored health insurance because they were unable to qualify for private insurance saw the Major Risk Medical Insurance Program slashed by $6.6 million.

And the list goes on, with the budget ax now poised once again to chop even more program, in the coming year. No wonder so many people are worried sick.

Jewish Family Services in Ventura offers a wide variety of programs, but its primary emphasis is on free or low-cost counseling. “Our counseling clinic is very full with people who have lost their insurance, people who can’t afford what they were paying and people on Medi-Cal who were referred from Behavorial Health,” Executive Director Amy Balchum said. “People call daily looking for rental and utility assistance.”

Jewish Family Services expanded its counseling services a few years ago to include the children of struggling parents.

“We see a lot of kids in the schools who are very stressed by their family’s financial situation,” Balchum said.

Even the organization is swimming upstream. “Our donations are down,” Balchum said. “We are doing OK but working to keep up with the need.”

The Boys and Girls Clubs are another place for children to escape the stresses of home and school. Meggan McCarthy is the director of special events and marketing of the Greater Oxnard and Port Hueneme branch. She said that in Ventura County, there are three full-service clubs that serve 7,200 members annually.

Like other nonprofit organizations, the Boys and Girls Club is fighting to stay afloat, with three clubhouses in Santa Paula and Fillmore being shut down as a cost saving measure, effective Sunday.. “Corporate donations are down but foundation grants have remained relatively consistent,” McCarthy said. “Our volunteer pool has reached an all-time high, and we are constantly being contacted by individuals and businesses alike asking what they can do to help.”

So far, the Greater Oxnard and Port Hueneme branch has been able to cope with the decrease in donations by spending every penny carefully. “Though donations as a whole are down, we are working hard to cut costs and remain fiscally responsible given our difficult economic climate,” McCarthy said. “To date, we have not cut any programs or services and have maintained the majority of staff on payroll.”

Hard times are evident in the number of children seeking help from the club. “We have certainly seen an increase in membership at all of our club sites, as working parents are spending more time looking for work and housing,” McCarthy said. “We have found that many of our youth are homeless, transient or are living with multiple families in small single-family homes.”

The Ojai Foundation recently laid off six of its nine staff members due to financial constraints. The group focuses on teaching environmental sustainability, a kinship with nature, and nonviolence. The group is less active during the winter, and the foundation leaders said in a statement that it only made sense to reduce the staff in order to save money.

Battling for the arts
The Ventura County Arts Council has had to fight and claw for every single dollar under the Schwarzenegger Administration. Not just because the Governor is not supportive, but because the Legislature has been at odds with itself over declining tax dollars for years. In the heat of the hand-to-hand combat for funding, the arts often get lost in the struggle.

Margaret Travers, executive director of the council, said it has been a difficult time for the organization. “This year is not as robust as it has been,” she said. “We’re trying to be strategic in our requests and thoughtful in how we spend the money that we do have. Our funding is down between one-quarter and one-third.”

The organization’s fiscal situation is directly tied to that of the California Arts Council. “Ten years ago, when I started in this position, we were getting $40,000 as a partner,” Travers said. “From 2003 to 2006 we got absolutely nothing.

From 2007 it has been building, and now we are getting about $15,000.”

Travers said the problem cannot be blamed entirely on the governor, but must be shared with the state legislature.

“There aren’t many legislators from this area that are fighting for us,” Travers said. “Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara, Ventura) has voted for us but the Stricklands, Tony Strickland (R-Simi Valley) and Audra Strickland (R-Simi Valley) have never been in favor of the arts. Tom McClintock (R-Roseville, formerly Thousand Oaks) was not in favor of the arts, And Elton Gallegly (R-Thousand Oaks) is not in favor of the arts.”

In contrast, restoration of the Libbey Bowl in Ojai is the focus of a major fundraising project. Anna Cho is the director of the campaign to raise $1 million to supplement the $2 million that has been allocated by the city of Ojai to rehabilitate the old building at the concert site. Cho is working with the Ojai Valley Service Foundation to bring the venue back to its former glory days.

“It has been around for 50 years and has not been taken care of well,” Cho said. “There is a lot of termite damage, a lot of water damage, the foundation is not solid. It is beyond repair at this point. If we don’t do something about it soon, it is going to fall apart.”

The Libbey Bowl will be closed this coming summer but will reopen in June 2011.

When nothing makes sense
One of the least visible but growing segments of the battered economy comprises people with serious mental illness and their families. One organization is there to provide as much help as possible.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Ventura County is headed by Executive Director Ratan Bhavnani. He said NAMI is the go-to resource for referrals for all aspects of aid for the mentally ill and their families.

Fundraising is his top priority this year. “Our funding has grown but we have not been able to keep up with our program growth,” Bhavnani said. “Our biggest fundraiser is the NAMI Walk in May. We need sponsorships, we need business sponsors, corporations bringing teams out, that sort of thing.”

Bhavnani said the most urgent need is keeping a roof over the heads of the clients. “Housing is absolutely crucial for the mentally ill,” he said. “There is no treatment for the mentally ill without housing. If someone is homeless on the street, they are trying to find a meal to eat or a place to stay, and the last thing they are going to worry about is getting well. That’s the way it works. And people who are not thinking clearly do not have the cognition to help themselves out of trouble. So housing is the most important component.”

The state budget ax has come down hard on the few dollars that had been directed toward mental health services. “Many of these clients are not able to work, so they go on disability and Medi-Cal,” Bhavnani said. “The services from the county continue to decrease because the state keeps cutting funding, that is what is so disconcerting. The state cuts funding to the counties and the counties don’t know where to turn.”

Although some new programs have stepped up to fill the void, the cuts have been damaging. But NAMI and its staff of one full-time director and one part-time worker plow ahead, trying to match the needs of the clients with the appropriate programs. “We are certainly the center of all things mental illness, and we can help them find the right resources,” Bhavnani said.    

To contact the organizations:

FOOD Share
4156 Southbank Road

Jewish Family Services
857 East Main St.

Boys and Girls Club of Greater Oxnard and Port Hueneme
1900 W. Fifth St.

Ojai Foundation
9739 Ojai Santa Paula Road

Ventura County Arts Council
646 County Square Drive
Ventura, CA 93003
(805) 658-2213

National Alliance on Mental Health
P.O. Box 1613