Karmella Sams, 48, is vice chair of SEIU Local 668 Chapter 12. She works on the other side of the desk at Ridge/Tioga, and struggles to help a flood of clients. "We lost a lot of staff based on the cuts. The clients have longer waits, longer times for us to establish eligibility for their benefits. We have so many people coming in now because of the economy."
Her center hasn't seen layoffs, but vacant positions aren't being filled. "We see a lot of people come in every day. There are a lot of people that would probably qualify for the job that I do, you do, and a lot of us do," she says.
Indeed, Sams found her job five years ago when she came in to apply for benefits after getting laid off. Those well-paying public-sector union jobs have played a crucial role in lifting the fortunes of black women like Sams — and they are now less available to her neighbors in North Philadelphia.
Sams says that the police have been making more visits to deal with incidents at the center, sometimes violent. "A lot of things evolve in the office based on people waiting. People's frustrations — we've had a few incidents."
In November, DPW implemented a 6 percent cut in payments to agencies that provide services to people with intellectual disabilities.
There have been previous cuts, says Kathleen Brown McHale, president of Special People In Northeast (SPIN). But the current austerity is "absolutely unprecedented. ODP [Office of Developmental Programs] and DPW seem to be oblivious to this."
SPIN has lost $1.9 million and, like other agencies, has had to turn prospective clients away. There are nearly 16,000 people statewide on the waiting list for these services, including 2,930 in Philadelphia. A survey of 27 Philly-area providers of services to people with intellectual disabilities found agencies projected $35 million in state cuts for the current fiscal year — and the survey did not include projections from one of the area's largest agencies.
Mitchell Gaskins, a 32-year-old with intellectual disabilities who lives in a Northeast Philly group home, was able to find a job at PennDOT with SPIN's help. But now, there is a long waiting list for the services that allow Gaskins and others to live in the community. Without that support, there is a fear that more people with intellectual disabilities will be institutionalized.
"I don't want to be put in [an] institution with bad people," says SPIN client Laurie Copestick, 42. "It's scary."
Funding for the job counseling that helped Gaskins and others find work has also been cut. "That's a shame," says Copestick. "You shouldn't make them sit at home because they don't have services."
Gaskins, Copestick and other SPIN clients have become activists. They've rallied in Harrisburg, met with legislators and helped convince the state to remove the word "retarded" from government documents.
"I don't think everybody wants to go backward," says Barbara Romanisky, 52. "SPIN gave my life back."
"The money may go away," says United Way's Ross. "But the people don't go away."
NOTE: An earlier version of this article failed to note that Karmella Sams was speaking in her capacity as vice chair of SEIU Local 668 Chapter 12, not as a government employee.