Whose welfare?

Downtown poor take another social services hit.

FIRST IT WAS THEIR TEETH. King County’s Regrade dental clinic has been two dentists short, leaving just one to tend to the hundreds of downtown poor with dental needs, including old men with gums so bad they lose a tooth biting into a sandwich. On the streets, community workers were wondering if the Seattle/King County Health Department was abandoning its dental mission downtown. Director Alonzo Plough assures us the dentists will be replaced. “In a large organization with multiple service sites,” he says, “individuals resign and new hires come on board. We’ll continue to provide effective and efficient services.”

Bully. But now word on the street is that an even bigger cut is in store for downtown social services to the poor. And this time the word is right. The state’s Department of Social and Health Services Belltown community service office is jettisoning almost a quarter of its staff, including its two Native American community workers. At least 14 employees are being cut, bringing to an end one of the center’s successful employment programs and halving its alcohol support services.

“We’ll be able to open the door and give people food stamps and a check,” says the center’s administrator the past five years, Margey Rubado. “But we can’t do much anymore to get them off the street and get them a job.” Altogether, one in five Belltown workers are being cut, about 23 percent. It’s part of a state-mandated belt-tightening in the wake of tax-cutting Initiative 695. But an obviously upset Rubado says her center, which aids downtown’s elderly, alcoholic, mentally ill, and homeless, is hit the hardest.

“The logic, or lack of logic,” she fumes, “makes me more than a little bit upset. I’m implementing what I’m told to implement.”

DSHS officials have been meeting for months to decide where to make cuts among its 18,000 state employees serving 11 million clients. Critics call the department bloated, and Governor Gary Locke has agreed cutbacks are in order. But persuasive arguments may be made that the department is understaffed, too. That’s Joe Martin’s feeling.

“The Belltown cuts are draconian,” says Martin, a social worker for 23 years at the Pike Market Medical Clinic. “Belltown is a model for other centers on finding jobs and assisting clients,” he says. “There should be more, not fewer, employees there.”

DSHS’ regional director Phyllis Lowe didn’t respond to interview requests. But Belltown’s Rubado says the region was carrying out cuts ordered in Olympia. Martin and others have met with top DSHS officials to protest the cuts, “but they seemed to have pretty much washed their hands of it,” Martin says. He spoke briefly with Governor Locke as well. “He seemed surprised they were letting people go. He thought it would be done by attrition.” The King County Labor Council also just passed a resolution asking the cuts be restored. But the reductions are under way.

“We did some great work these past five years,” wrote Belltown’s Rubado to her staff in a July 20 memo announcing the cutbacks—seven social workers, three financial specialists, two support workers, and two administrative staffers. “Remember this period because it was special.”

Sounds like something good has ended. “The success we’ve had in the past five years, yes,” Rubado said, “this pretty much guts all that.”

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