What follows is the text of my remarks at the press conference on 9/17. This outlines in more detail the reasons behind my homeless strike:
My name is Ted Pascoe. I am the executive director of Senior Support Services. Senior Support is the safety net organization of the hungry and homeless seniors of the Denver Metro area. As we are the only agency catering to the profound needs of this population, we have a critical role to play in Denver’s Road Home, the plan to end homelessness. Our seniors -- one-third of whom are veterans -- experience a multitude of challenging problems including abject poverty, poor health, lack of a support system, mental illness, alcoholism, substance abuse, physical infirmities, and self-neglect. They are the poorest of the poor.
Grantors need grantees as much as grantees need grantors. Grantees need the financial support of grantors, obviously. But in order for grantors to fulfill their missions, they need a level of access to the underprivileged that only grantees can provide. It is a collaboration requiring mutual respect that should always involve give and take on both sides, a relationship where each is first among equals. Instead, the Denver Regional Council of Governments sees itself as paramount and infallible.
Late last year, Senior Support was informed by the Denver Regional Council of Governments (aka DRCOG) that our reimbursement category, Outreach to Special Populations, was being eliminated. We struggled to arrive at an appropriate new reimbursement category. We would suggest a category and DRCOG would say, “If you want.” This was not helpful. Finally, it was mutually agreed we should seek funding to provide case management services in the coming program year.
In February, DRCOG issued a request for proposals identifying the various reimbursement categories for the coming program year. These categories included nutrition, case management services, screening and evaluation, transportation and in-home services, among others. After all the proposals had been submitted, DRCOG’s funding was cut by 13%. DRCOG reacted by limiting its funding priorities to nutrition, in-home services and transportation. Since Senior Support had applied to do case management services, this automatically put us at a terrible disadvantage. DRCOG claims it is within its right to change funding priorities after proposals have been submitted. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should, especially if it means shutting out homeless seniors.
We were notified in May that DRCOG would not be funding Senior Support as of July 1st of this year. As we have had a successful collaboration with DRCOG for 25 years, this was a complete surprise and represents a loss of 15% of our revenue. In these tough economic times and because we do not benefit from multi-year grants or fee-for-service contracts, it is going to be next to impossible for us to make up a $75,000 deficit in a $500,000 budget. As we already stretch the dollar as far as it can be stretched and our 5 fulltime employees are already overextended managing up to 200 seniors per day, this cut will be extremely painful. We will be forced to layoff staff, cut programs and reduce the hours we are open.
In its denial of our formal appeal, DRCOG claims we were out of compliance with their new, online invoicing system. It cannot be overstated that we did not know we were out of compliance. We did not know DRCOG had not received our invoices via the online reporting system. We thought we had submitted them each and every month, we thought DRCOG had received them, and we thought we were in full compliance. As there is no mechanism informing us that we have successfully submitted an invoice, there was no reason for us to suspect we had not successfully submitted them. For instance, there is no automatically generated email that informs the grantee an invoice has been received and is being processed. Throughout this period we contacted DRCOG to find out whether we were in compliance but were never told we were not. When we finally found out DRCOG had not received the electronic invoices, we immediately corrected the problem. I believe all of this could have been prevented if the program officer at DRCOG had been willing to sit down with our new employee, train her on the use of these new systems, and explain how they are designed to work and interact.
DRCOG faults us for providing a brief description of what the funds would be used for even though the online application literally asks for a “Brief Description”. If DRCOG had wanted something besides a brief description, it should have used different language. The previous year’s application was extremely thin; it didn’t ask for a description of any kind, let alone a brief one. This makes it doubly ironic that suddenly the description is a controlling factor. What’s more, the only reason we were asked for a description at all is because grantees had recently asked to be asked that question. How is it that after a successful 25-year collaboration, the answer to one poorly asked question is allowed to help end the collaboration? The next time DRCOG asks me for a brief description, you can believe I will provide a lengthy one.
If Senior Support is guilty of failing to properly use the new online application and the new online reporting systems both of which were under development throughout the period in question, I take full responsibility -- and I could not be sorrier.
No current employee of DRCOG has ever done a site visit at Senior Support. Nor did DRCOG request an annual report or an operating budget. A site visit would reveal that we serve the seniors of the metro area with the greatest needs. A review of our annual report and operating budget would demonstrate how critical a $75,000 program is to our continued success, and by extension the success of Denver’s Road Home. How can you end a successful 25-year collaboration without learning a little more about the affected organization, without bothering to do a site visit?
These funds administered by DRCOG are Older Americans Act funds. Entities that distribute Older Americans Act funds are required by Congress to target those seniors with the greatest economic need, the greatest social need, minorities and the frailest. With this in mind, let me be very clear. We are not asking for special favors. It is not a special favor to fund a nonprofit that serves the seniors of the region with the greatest social need, that serves the seniors with the greatest economic need, that serves the seniors who are the frailest both physically and mentally, and that serves a population rich in ethnic diversity. DRCOG cannot identify a group of seniors that has greater needs than those served by Senior Support. To the contrary, any reasonable person following DRCOG’s own promulgated guidelines would have no choice but to fund our organization. Senior Support should be the first organization funded by DRCOG, not the last. Failure to fund our organization is tantamount to sacrificing the poorest of the poor in violation of Congress’ charge to DRCOG to serve those with the greatest needs.
DRCOG will tell you that it serves seniors with “great” social and economic needs but the operating word here is “greatest”. The clients of Senior Support have the greatest needs of any group of seniors. Eighty-seven percent of our clients live at or below the federal poverty threshold, 70% are mentally ill, 70% have an alcohol or drug problem, 57% are minorities, 50% are frail or disabled, and 34% are veterans. At any one time, 40% are homeless but 60% have been homeless in the past two years. These are the most compelling reasons why funding should be restored to our organization.
When DRCOG experienced a 13% funding cut, what it could have done, what it should have done was reduce each grant award by 13%. This would have been a simpler and more equitable solution, manageable to everyone. Instead, it cut our funding by 100%. We understand that times are tough but that is no reason why homeless seniors should bear the brunt of the budget cuts, why homeless seniors should bear the full weight of the economic downturn.
It is difficult to articulate the depth of our outrage – so I will demonstrate it. To call attention to the plight of the homeless seniors we serve, I am rendering myself homeless until the Denver Regional Council of Governments restores funding to Senior Support Services. Until such time, this backpack, a duffle bag and a bicycle represent my worldly possessions. As 90% of our clients do not have cars, I will not use mine. I will not even visit my condo let alone sleep there. Instead, like so many of our clients, I will be sleeping somewhere outside, on public property.
We implore DRCOG to restore our funding. Restore it because we serve those with the greatest social need, those with the greatest economic need. Restore it because Congress requires it. Restore it because it is the right thing to do.