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If you meet someone who claims there’s a single cause for delinquency, says Carr, “You’ve just met a fool.” Poverty, level of education, child abuse, domestic violence — to address root causes, you need input from parents, schools, after-school programs, from county-government funds and leaders, juvenile court, probation officers, police, and from groups like his, an independent social-service nonprofit.

SAY competes with other groups for social-service contracts, but it is not in competition with the county itself. Funders require stiff evaluations; the paperwork to receive a grant is as massive as the paperwork to show how the grant’s been used. SAY’s administrative expense runs about 10 percent of the budget.

Still, Carr’s programs and services — in good years they’re renewed because of their success — has been hit hard of late. SAY’s 500 employees are paid professionals who are, in most cases, licensed or certified and hired by SAY. Money from federal, state, and county coffers, as well as from private foundations, memberships, and donations, is running 30 percent less than normal.

What nags both Carr and Yaffa is the overlapping nature of contracts: SAY may receive a one-year contract for a child-abuse program, spend $100K the first month, show results, and submit a claim, then wait another month to get paid, which means running a $200K deficit. “That’s what reserves are for,” says Carr. But in a downtime, reserves are gone.

“And while the recession is unfolding for us,” he says, “there are families who were living in a two-bedroom apartment that now live in a car.” They run out of food, lose jobs, double up in apartments, lose privacy. Clients call in crying, bark at receptionists at SAY’s Kearny Mesa headquarters, and are helpless to stop their kids’ changing behaviors at school. Yaffa knows of one child who was “suddenly flunking PE because his parents had no money for detergent to clean his gym clothes. He doesn’t tell the school; he just skips PE.” She’s heard of an increase in bed-wetting in five-year-olds with emotional issues.

SAY can barely keep up, says Carr. “If Dad loses his job, the home destabilizes, and you don’t know where that’s going to surface.”

As for SAY’s relative health: “I assume it will fall to pieces the minute I wake in the morning.” Several administrative jobs, because the program’s funding dried up, couldn’t be reassigned. Staffers “didn’t have transferable skills.” Consequently, he says, “Everyone’s nervous.”

In a heartfelt letter from Carr and board chief Jeffrey McCulloch, they wonder what happened to the programs offered. Many are threatened: First Five, juvenile justice, child abuse (two county contracts are slated to be cut by 40 and 33 percent), Healthy Start, the State SB303 Latchkey — these survived fiscal year 2008–’09. But “cuts this fiscal year seem almost certain.” The hardest hit will be “the people we serve.”

What’s more, “Many small nonprofits that are currently hanging on a shoestring may not survive.” Carr and McCulloch have prioritized reductions: first training, then merit increases, bonuses, some consulting contracts, vacant positions, annual cost-of-living increases, and, last, staff positions.

Please Don’t Take My Cane Away

While nonprofits are wilting, families, typically divorced women and their children, are adjusting to public-assistance cuts. Hit hard is child care for low-income families. The state’s latchkey program, extended day care for children before and after school, began in the mid-1980s and has been funded for more than two decades. This year Governor Schwarzenegger cut the program, meaning 13,000 children will lose care. Since July 2009, nonprofits like SAY have been scrambling to fund programs for these kids.

Mrs. Gonzalez, a current SAY client, is raising three grandchildren, aged 3, 6, and 8, on a housekeeper’s salary. Her son and daughter-in-law have been arrested for drug possession, their kids placed with Mrs. Gonzalez. Divorced, and with limited English, she is a proud woman. We meet at Chollas elementary school in late afternoon. Her girls play in an adjoining room. Mrs. Gonzalez doesn’t want welfare. “I don’t apply for help, because I think I can work. I like my job.” She refuses to take food stamps. The irony is not lost: if she did not work, she would qualify for more benefits. She works 40 hours a week at a retirement home and makes $7 an hour. Two of the children are in school, while the youngest is watched by a family friend.

When we speak in September, the grandkids have only after-school care. She is “losing time” because she drops them off at 9:00 and can’t get to work until 10:00, a 25 percent loss in wages. Her employer wants to be flexible, but it’s company policy. She’s had six tardies. One more and she’s fired. “I’m very worried for that,” she says. Paying for private child care is out of the question. The cost, at $160 a week per child, is more than half her income.

One day-care staffer at Chollas tells me that a few parents will deposit their kids on the grounds before school opens. The kids sit on benches, sometimes for two and a half hours. “It’s killing those parents. They have no alternative.” But Mrs. Gonzalez will not leave her kids by themselves.

Sandy Johnson, who is the director of SAY’s extended-day services, some 47 programs, tells me that 70 families applied last September for extended day care: 25 were approved, 25 denied, 20 are pending. The extended-care program at Chollas has only 6 families enrolled, the most SAY could pay for, but Johnson says she can’t keep a program open with six children. It won’t pay the wages of staff. It has to be fully or mostly funded.

Another woman helped by SAY, through the Family Self-Sufficiency program, is Bexaida. The divorced 42-year-old has four children, all in public school. Things got bad for Bexaida the summer of 2008. She was working, taking care of her kids and her elderly, diabetic mother, who is disabled and a breast-cancer survivor. Bexaida, whose long jet-black hair drapes her shoulders like a cloak, was behind on phone, cable, and utility bills. Cable is essential, she says. “Most children have to have internet to complete assignments.” Electricity shut off, Bexaida went to SAY. There, with the additional aid of Campesinos Unidos, another social-service agency, she filled out a stack of paperwork for emergency relief. Verification took months before her in-home essentials were reinstated.

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