Recent budget cuts resulting from the governor's budget vetoes are having a “direct negative impact” on the homeless, poor, and vulnerable in Alaska, the state's bishops said Thursday.
“Our Catholic social services agencies, along with other faith-based denominations and private nonprofits, can barely keep up with the current needs of people who live on the margins,” the July 25 statement reads.
“Across Alaska, thousands of low-income families now face new struggles through funding cuts to agencies that operate food pantries, shelter programs, and early childhood education. The millions of dollars cut statewide to homeless services will force the most vulnerable onto the streets. Cuts to senior housing grants and to the senior benefits program adversely affect our elders,” it adds.
The statement, published by the Alaska Catholic Conference, was signed by Bishop Andrew Bellisario, C.M, of Juneau and Apostolic Administrator of Anchorage; Bishop Chad Zielinsk of Fairbanks; and Bishop Roger L. Schwietz, OMI, Archbishop Emeritus of Anchorage.
It follows budget cuts made this month by Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
According to Anchorage Daily News, the governor cut $444 million from a proposed $8.7 billion state operating budget. The cuts will affect multiple education initiatives and Medicaid services, including adult dental coverage. A senior benefits program which paid cash to elders in need was cut from the budget, and millions were cut from services that aid the poor, blind, special-needs, or homeless populations, Anchorage Daily News reported.
The cuts were part of a plan to rebalance the budget without raising taxes or cutting the Permanent Fund dividend, an annual payout to permanent citizens of Alaska, funded by oil revenues.
The cuts will end daytime shelter at multiple Catholic homeless shelters and will drastically reduce the number of beds available, the bishops said.
“In Anchorage, Brother Francis Shelter will be forced to reduce its capacity from 240 beds to 100. Where will the other 140+ homeless go? The Shelter has now closed during the day to cut costs, forcing more people to wander the streets,” the bishops said.
“Clare House, which provides shelter to 90 at-risk women with children and to expectant mothers, 24/7, will be forced to reduce services to nighttime only. Where will these moms and their children go? Currently the shelter also provides day-care for their children allowing these women to work.”
The bishops also expressed their concerns for the livelihoods of the employees at these shelters, who face layoffs after the budget cuts. Anchorage Daily News reported that 14 people could be laid off from the Brother Francis shelter alone due to the cuts.
“We need to support these dedicated servants of the poor, not penalize them by laying them off from their jobs. After all, they work on our behalf. They assist those who are clinging to the last rung of the ladder in our society, many of whom, without assistance, have only to look forward to destitution and despair,” the bishops said.
“As the Catholic Bishops of Alaska, we are called to advocate and defend or speak against government policies and programs that directly affect the lives and dignity of the poor and vulnerable,” they said.
“We call upon all our elected officials to restore funds to agencies and services that provide for the needs of our children, our elders, the poor, the vulnerable, and the homeless. We ask Alaskans to reach out and contact their elected officials in support of restoring funds for services to the poor and vulnerable in our State,” the bishops added.
“We will continue to do our part to fund our agencies as best we can with our resources, our time and our talent, together with all those willing to support us. We will continue to collaborate with our local and state governments because we realize it is all of us, working together, who contribute to the solution of taking care of the most vulnerable in our State.”
Dunleavy's vetoes met with strong opposition, and the Alaska House of Representatives voted July 29 to restore some of the vetoed funding.
In a 31-7 vote, the House voted to restore funds for college scholarships and infrastructure projects, among other things. The funds will come from the state's Constitutional Budget Reserve.
The House bill will now go to Dunleavy.