Crime Act funds help area shelter

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 9, 2005

NATCHEZ &045;&045; If you want to know why it’s important that Congress not cut more than $1 billion in federal money social service agencies, just ask Stephanie.

Two years ago, at age 14, Stephanie (not her real name) left home with her baby girl due to conflicts at home.

She ended up at another youth facility before finally being taken in by the Sunshine Shelter a month ago. And since then, she said, the loving attention of that shelter’s workers has helped turn her life around.

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&uot;I just took my GED, and I’m going to take college courses this summer, and I’m also looking for a job,&uot; said Stephanie, whose goal is to become a nurse.

&uot;They’ve given me a more positive outlook on life,&uot; she added. &uot;I’ve seen I need whatever’s best for my daughter.&uot;

A measure now before Congress would completely cut out Victims of Crime Act funds, which comprise a large part of the funding for agencies that help everyone from abused women and children to rape victims to abused seniors.

VOCA funds are the second-largest funding source for the Sunshine Shelter, a temporary home for abused and neglected children from Adams and 12 other counties &045;&045; 131 children last year alone.

&uot;VOCA makes up one-third of our funding,&uot; said Matilda Stephens, the shelter’s executive director. &uot;It pays for most of our child care staff.

&uot;I’m not sure we’d be able to recoup that money, either through grants or donations. If it’s cut, it will severely impact how many kids we can take or whether we’re open to take children at all.&uot;

Not only that, but the Sunshine Shelter serves as a diagnostic center for the state, meaning every child admitted to the facility is given physical and mental, hearing and dental screenings.

Without that money helping to keep the doors open, possible mental or physical health problems might go undetected or untreated, she said.

At Catholic Charities’ Natchez office, Director Martha Mitternight is also watching closely to see whether cuts are put in place.

That nonprofit runs both the Guardian Shelter for abused women and their children and a sexual assault crisis line, which serve hundreds of women from throughout the area each year. The shelter alone served more than 300 women and children.

That office received almost $75,000 this year from VOCA, including a 20 percent local match. It’s one of the agency’s largest funding sources, and one of the few that can be used for salaries for needed workers.

&uot;We don’t really have another resource&uot; to make up for that money, Mitternight said.

&uot;We would have to try to find lot of little grants, but realistically what we would have to do is to cut back on services &045;&045; for example, have a social worker part of time or not have day care at the level we have now.&uot;

Also, VOCA money helps victims of abuse in a variety of ways, from giving them clothes to wear after their first visits to the hospital to repairing broken windows or broken-in doors, Mitternight said.

This comes at a time when other funding sources &045;&045; such as the Jack Byrne Foundation, the Sunshine Shelter’s third-largest funding source &045;&045; are also facing cuts in the next fiscal year.

VOCA funds come from court fines and penalties, not taxpayer money, Mitternight said.

&uot;You’re talking about saving $1.2 billion&uot; from cutting out VOCA, she said. &uot;That won’t make a dent in the deficit, but it greatly impacts the people we serve.&uot;

Where do our lawmakers stand? Representatives of Sen. Trent Lott and Sen. Thad Cochran’s offices could not be reached for comment.

But Rep. Chip Pickering, R-3rd District, is one of several members of Congress who have signed letters asking House Appropriations Committee members not to go through with the cuts.

Meanwhile, Stephanie has a few words for members of Congress who are seriously considering the cuts.

&uot;They do good work (at the Sunshine Shelter. I’ve seen kids come in there crying, but when they leave they have a smile on their face. They’ve helped out a lot of kids.&uot;