NORMAN — As the longest government shutdown in U.S. history continues to grind on, its impact on Norman and Cleveland County is beginning to come into focus.
The federal government funds a myriad of services and jobs throughout the state of Oklahoma. Nationally, almost 380,000 government employees are not receiving a paycheck, and an additional 420,000 are working without pay.
One of those funding streams is Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), which the federal government sends to the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council.
The council reimburses nonprofits for services provided to crime victims, nonprofits like Center For Children and Families Inc. (CCFI), the Women's Resource Center (WRC), Bethesda, Mary Abbott Children's House and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), all in Norman. These nonprofits provide services to some of the most vulnerable populations in the Norman community: abused and/or neglected children and women escaping domestic violence.
CCFI Chief Executive Officer Brandon Brooks, Bethesda Executive Director Travis Humphrey and WRC Executive Director Kristy Stewart all said they use this federal money to fund a significant portion of their staff salaries, a notoriously difficult budget item to fund for nonprofits.
The district attorneys council has told nonprofits that they will be reimbursed for December, and they have an opportunity to estimate and be reimbursed for expenses in January, but after Jan. 17, VOCA funds will not be available until the government reopens. That means their organizations would have to tap into reserves or additional lines of credit, and, if the shutdown continues for an extended period of time, cut staff positions.
"It creates a significant cash flow issue," Brooks said. "There's a lot of uncertainty and concern over how this would impact our ability to serve our clients."
Stewart said the WRC receives federal funding from three grant funds: VOCA, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Sexual Assault Services Grant Program (SASP).
"Almost all of that funding is for personnel providing services at our shelter, rape crisis center, court advocacy and crisis intervention," she said. "[Losing VOCA funding] would literally impact everything we do.
"The longer it goes on, we'll have to draw on our reserves, and that runs out eventually. Right now, we have 23 women and children in our shelter."
The government shutdown is or will eventually impact individuals who receive SNAP benefits and subsidized housing.
"All of that means people will need to stay in our shelter longer, because they don't have access to those resources," Stewart said. "It drains our entire community."
All three administrators said they're being open and honest with their staff about what the future might hold, tough discussions for individuals who already deal with highly stressful situations.
"There's a lot of anxiety and frustration," Humphrey said, adding it takes Bethesda therapists months to build a rapport with the children they serve who have been abused. "It takes a lot of time and consistency and effort to build a relationship and trust with a child, and you're talking about a lot of sensitive issues.
"Once you build that, you can start working toward healing, but it takes time. And if you can't give that time, it creates a dysfunctional process."
Brooks said over the past several years, state funding sources have been cut, which only makes the federal funding services so necessary.
"You layer this federal situation on top of it, it's compounding," he said. "You get past the state hurdle, here comes the federal hurdle."
While the impact of delayed VOCA funding hasn't set in yet, and won't be felt for several weeks, Brooks said he's preparing for the worst.
"We're putting Plans A, B and C in place," he said. "We want people to be aware that, maybe not on a day-to-day basis, but in times of crisis, what's happening at the federal government impacts us locally."
"Government needs to be open," Humphrey added. "Regardless of your political leanings, advocacy on this issue is important.
"We need to be secure in our ability to provide these services to the children and families we care about. The conversation needs to continue: let's get this done."