Government shutdown drags on, putting county services at risk
As the government shutdown approaches its 35th day, services in Grand County funded by federal programs are beginning to plan for the worst case scenario.
While federal food and housing programs have been able to provide benefits through the month of February, the Grand County Housing Authority, Public Health and Human Services offices are unsure what happens if the shutdown down continues.
“These are our most vulnerable, our most at risk populations, so we need to do everything we can to ensure that these people get (…) their benefits,” said Deb Ruttenberg, director of Grand County Human Services.
The Grand County Human Services office has been able to distribute January and February Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, with recipients getting February benefits only around 10 days after when they received their January benefits.
Typically, human services distributes about $35,500 a month in SNAP benefits, which serves around 400 people in the county.
However, in order for 22 families in Grand County to receive their February SNAP benefits, the human services office was given 72 hours notice to make sure their cases were recertified by an advanced deadline.
“It was very hectic,” Ruttenberg explained.
Another type of food assistance, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), benefits will be available through February, according to Brene Belew-LaDue, director of the Grand County Public Health office.
There are 117 clients in the county that receive WIC benefits, which often used for baby formula and can be used in conjunction with SNAP.
“Everybody is looking at contingencies if this goes on past February,” Belew-LaDue said. “It can affect some of our more vulnerable populations, mothers and babies. (…) It’s hard to save food, especially the stuff on WIC, which is perishable, so it’s not like you can go and stock up on it and save it.”
Since February SNAP benefits have been distributed early, the human services office is working with recipients to provide resources that can help them budget and supplement their benefits.
“Now these folks have to manage that money to carry them through the entire month of February because they won’t be getting any more food assistance until the government reopens,” Ruttenberg said.
One resource is the food pantries run by Mountain Family Center. Helen Sedlar, executive director of Mountain Family Center, said they haven’t yet seen an increase in food pantry use, but they do expect one if the shutdown continues.
“I would say February, or after if this continues through February, I think our numbers could soar dramatically,” Sedlar said. “Right now, we are very well stocked and we have the great support of our community between can drives and the grocery stores.”
Sedlar noted that each visit to the food pantry can help save families around $50 to $75 in groceries on average, which is money that they can then use for other expenses.
While Ruttenberg and Belew-LaDue can continue to take new applications for the SNAP and WIC programs for February benefits, it is unclear what happens come March.
“What we know is that they only had money to pay through February and after that there’s no more money,” Ruttenberg said.
She said, once the government reopens, she expects SNAP recipients to get back benefits if the shutdown continues past February. Ruttenberg and Belew-LaDue also said they plan to meet with the Grand Foundation to coordinate community resources should the shutdown continue.
Around 36 families in Grand County rely on the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for Section 8 vouchers to help pay their rent. Sheena Darland, executive director of the Grand County Housing Authority, said rent will be paid in February, but it is unclear what happens March if HUD is still closed.
“They are just going to keep me updated on a month by month basis thereout if funding is still there and they can pay,” Darland said.
Currently, HUD is drafting a letter to recipients and landlords explaining the situation. Darland said plans are made for a shutdown lasting one or maybe two months, but no one expected the shutdown to last this long, so it’s unclear how prepared HUD is and how landlords could react if they don’t receive payments.
This uncertainty caused a lot of stress on recipients and Darland said she receives multiple calls a day from residents who are fearful of what could happen.
“It’s a wait and pray game right now, which I hate because I mean we’re talking about people’s livelihood,” she said. “As far as Section 8, I literally just have to wait for the state to tell me whether or not they’re going to be able to provide those rents or not this month.”
Aside from residents who receive Section 8 vouchers, HUD, along with the USDA, subsidizes around 70 percent of the operating costs of two of Grand County’s senior living options, Grand Living Senior Center and the Silver Spruce apartments.
Darland said that the county is currently able to run those facilities without issue because of the rent from residents, but the Housing Authority is trying to make financially responsible decisions in case the shutdown continues.
“We don’t see any foreseeable issues in the next few months, but if this is going to last a year then we will have to tap reserve accounts or look for other ways to subsidize,” she said. “We just have to watch our expenditures as closely as we can and pay for what we have to. We can’t go remodeling anything until this is over.”
Darland said presumably, the government will refund the housing authority for expenses during the shutdown, but it is still unclear. In the meantime, the housing authority continues to make sure the properties remain compliant.
Another concern is that while the U.S. Forest Service remains closed for the shutdown, wildfire mitigation efforts don’t take place. According to the Forest Service, fire suppression and training are considered essential?, but mitigation efforts like slash pile burning, which is typically done in the winter, is not.
Thousands of slash burnings were slated for the Grand County portions of the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests. It is unclear how many of those were completed prior to the shut down.
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