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Methodists take their message to the capitol

Methodists take their message to the capitol

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Methodists take their message to the capitol

By Tita Parham | July 6, 2010 {1193}

TALLAHASSEE — In Florida’s tough job market and overloaded human service system, the experience Linda Markham (not her real name) has had is a familiar one.

The 32-year-old mother of two small children couldn’t make ends meet on the job she had, but she made too much money to qualify for food stamps, so she stood in line every week to get food from a church food program.

Members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 11th Episcopal District (front row), wait for a press conference of key leaders advocating for children’s issues at the state capitol to begin. Florida Conference Bishop Timothy Whitaker was one of the speakers, dedicating thousands of paper cut-out and painted hand prints made by children from across the state that were hung in the capitol’s rotunda. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #10-1498. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

When she left her community to escape an abusive relationship she couldn’t find a job; she did finally qualify for food stamps.

After two years, she’s working again, but now she’s having a hard time finding childcare and after-school programs she can afford, which means her children can’t benefit from the meals provided by those programs.

“I’m a statistic,” she said.

That’s one reason she chose to participate in Florida Advocacy Days at Children’s Week during the state’s spring legislative session. She was there as a member of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Tallahassee to advocate for other children and families, but also to speak on behalf of her own.

About 75 Methodists met at Trinity United Methodist Church in Tallahassee April 11-13 to learn about legislation affecting children and families and then meet with legislators to urge them to support specific actions on bills being considered.

The annual advocacy event was a joint effort between United Way of Florida and advocacy group Florida Impact, both based in Tallahassee; Florida Conference Justice and Outreach Ministries; and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 11th Episcopal District.

It was held during Children’s Week, an annual event sponsored by United Way of Florida at the state capitol that provides weeklong activities designed to raise awareness about children’s issues and is supported by more than 80 nonprofit, business and community groups.

The advocacy event is one way the Florida Conference is working to reduce poverty among children, a social witness priority the conference adopted in 2007, and a larger effort to eliminate poverty altogether. Nearly 1,800 lay and clergy members gathered during this year’s annual conference session June 10-12 under the theme “Transforming the World by Eradicating Extreme Poverty.”

The current reality

One million people are out of work in Florida, and the unemployment rate fluctuates between 8 percent and 15 percent across the state.

Last year, one in 56 homes foreclosed; during the third quarter the total was 157,000. Between April 2007 and February 2009, the number of people receiving food stamps increased 54 percent, and one in 10 people, or 2.5 million Floridians, now benefit from the assistance.

The Revs. Ken Hamilton and Pam Cahoon encourage the Rev. Freddie Tellis to vote for legislation supporting children and families in a role-play simulating a visit with a state legislator. Hamilton is pastor at Tallahassee Heights United Methodist Church in Tallahassee, Cahoon is director of C.R.O.S. Ministries (Christians Reaching Out to Society) in Lake Worth, and Tellis is pastor at Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Havana. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #10-1499. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.
Ted Granger, president of United Way of Florida, shared those statistics with the group during the training portion of the advocacy event. Participants spent the day April 12 learning about the issues in preparation for visits with state House and Senate representatives the next day.

With new construction slowed, tourism down and fewer people moving to Florida, Granger said, the state does not have the revenue it needs to meet budget needs, despite getting $12 billion in stimulus money from the federal government.

And with 80 percent of the budget in education and human services, he said, there are only two places the government can cut to address billion-dollar deficits.

“The bottom line is we don’t have any money,” Granger said. “And next year we won’t have any money.”

Operative words: access, accountability

Given the state’s budget woes and the lagging economy, legislators undeniably had tough choices to make regarding what areas of the budget would be cut or shored up. Florida Advocacy Days participants wanted to make sure programs helping children and families weren’t in the cut category.

The Florida food stamp program — now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — was a top concern.

At issue was how the money already in the budget for the program would be used once the state receives its portion of the $400 million the U.S. Defense Department is making available to states to help them cope with rising caseloads. The federal government pays the cost of food stamp benefits and splits the cost of administering the program with each state.

The number of people receiving SNAP benefits was higher in every state in November 2009 than a year earlier, according to information compiled by Florida Impact. In Florida, SNAP participation increased by 42 percent from January 2009 to January 2010, compared to a 23 percent increase nationally.

Florida also ranks 12th among states with the highest rates of people reporting difficulties affording food and fourth among states for the number of people receiving food stamps. Three Florida metropolitan areas are among the top 25 with the highest rates of food hardship.

Jennifer Lange says the need for new dollars in Florida is critical. “We have more customers now than we have ever had,” she said during the afternoon panel discussion.

Debra Susie, executive director of Florida Impact, gives participants specific instructions on what to say to legislators when meeting with them the next day. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #10-1500. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

Lange directs ACCESS Florida, the program through which people apply for benefits. Not only has the demand increased, she said, but the number of ACCESS staff members has been downsized from 8,000 to 4,500, which means there aren’t enough people to answer the 2 million to 3 million calls received each month.

It also means people aren’t getting help fast enough. ACCESS staff members strive to meet two standards — a 30-day processing period for non-crisis issues and seven days for people in dire straits. In 20 percent of the non-crisis cases, Lange said, it takes more than 30 days for people to receive benefits; for 15 percent of those needing help immediately, the wait is longer than seven days.

“When you’re hungry, (waiting) one hour is too long,” she said.

New dollars would be used to hire more people, ensure positions aren’t cut and improve the technology ACCESS uses, making the application process simpler for clients and more automated, freeing up staff to troubleshoot issues and handle backlogs.

As a food stamp recipient, Markham knows the difficulties firsthand — not getting through to staff when there’s a question, confusion in the application process, figuring out how to apply in the first place.
“I knew enough to get the information,” she said. “But there’s a lot of people out there who don’t have access.”

The problem with the federal dollars, says Debra Susie, executive director of Florida Impact, is Congress did not specify that state funds already designated for the program must be used for that purpose, so states could reduce current funding by an amount equal to the new federal money, in effect erasing any new resources.

“You know it’s a shell game,” she said, “using the DOD money to plug holes in the budget.”

Susie urged participants to stress the importance of supporting a House bill that would give ACCESS the funding it needs to improve its operations when meeting with legislators. She also said legislators need to ensure budgeted and new federal funding is used as intended.

Closing the hunger gap

Some legislators are working to bring more federal resources Florida’s way.

As of April, five of the 27 sponsors of an act before Congress that would expand the federal after-school meal program to all 50 states are from Florida. That expansion provides the funding groups need to serve a meal, instead of just a snack, to students in enrichment programs after school, on weekends and during school holidays.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia receive the additional funding. None of the eight southeastern states, including Florida, do, despite all being ranked among the top 12 states with the highest percentage of food shortages, according to Florida Impact information.

The Orlando-Kissimmee metropolitan area ranks first in the state and fifth in the country for food hardship, Ebony Yarbrough told the group. Yarbrough is the child nutrition coordinator for Florida Impact. She also said nearly 32 percent of households in the area with children have trouble affording food — nearly one in three.

Participants take notes on key issues affecting children and families in preparation for visits with state legislators. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #10-1501. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

Advocacy Days participants asked legislators to support the expansion, with the goal of securing at least half the Florida bipartisan, congressional delegation and a least one senator to cosponsor the legislation.

Computers with Internet access were also set up in the fellowship hall at Trinity United Methodist Church so participants could send a letter to members of Congress asking them to expand access to programs and pass the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act.

Every four to five years, Congress evaluates federally funded food programs and decides whether or not to reauthorize them. That’s happening this year. The current Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 expires Sept. 30, after being extended a year.

Like SNAP, one of the issues with the meal programs is access and ease of applying. Millions of children are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, but are not getting them because the application process is confusing and cumbersome. In the letter supporting reauthorization, members of Congress are asked to eliminate the paperwork families must submit by making children who already participate in SNAP and the state’s Medicaid and children’s health insurance programs automatically eligible.

Congress is also being asked to lower eligibility requirements in low-income areas. Currently, if 50 percent of families in a specific area are below 185 percent of the federal poverty line, children in those households are eligible for free or reduced price school meals. Advocates want to see that requirement lowered to 40 percent so more kids who need help can participate in the programs.

Crystal Fitzsimmons says there’s hope. “This is the first time anyone has talked about real new dollars going into the program,” she said.

Fitzsimmons is director of the School and Out-of-School Time Programs for the Food Research and Action Center based in Washington, D.C. During the morning panel discussion, she told the group that President Barack Obama has proposed adding $1 billion in new funding each year for child nutrition programs, with the goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015.

“Now is crunch time,” she said. “If we don’t communicate how important this funding is over the next several weeks then the window of opportunity has closed.”

The stakes are high. Nearly 1.3 million children rely on school lunch programs, and expansion of the meal program could potentially bring $7 million in new money to the state.

Expansion is also important, Susie says, because snacks are not enough for older youth. A meal attracts them to programs, she says, and that’s something local law enforcement agencies are encouraging. They want older youth involved in supervised programs between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., when school is out and many parents are still working.

Removing the caps

Advocates’ concerns about state funding for affordable housing mirror those related to SNAP funding — money meant for one program is often used elsewhere.

“There is every possibility, like 98 percent, that the cap bill will be passed,” Mark Hendrickson tells participants. Hendrickson, a board member with the Florida Housing Coalition, was referring to bills calling for the repeal of a cap on money going to a state trust fund for affordable housing. By the end of the legislative session, the bills had unexpectedly not made it to the floor for a vote, effectively killing them. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #10-1502. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

One panel member during the afternoon session was optimistic, however. “We find ourselves in a situation where we might actually win one,” said Mark Hendrickson, a board member with the Florida Housing Coalition.

Hendrickson was referring to House and Senate bills calling for the repeal of a cap on money going to the Sadowski Trust Fund for affordable housing. The fund was established in 1992 to ensure there would be enough money to meet the state’s affordable housing needs. Money for the fund comes from a portion of the taxes on documents filed when property is sold.

Thanks to a strong housing market, the fund hit a high of nearly $600 million dollars, Hendrickson said, and it was strongly supported. But then legislators began looking at the fund as a “piggy bank,” he said, to shore up other areas of the state’s budget. In 2004, the fund was capped at $240 million, regardless of dollars raised. Legislators became so used to using the funds, Hendrickson said, they never repealed the cap.

Revenues going into the fund are now less than the cap, and with hopes the market will soon improve, the fund has the potential to grow significantly. Now, advocates say, is the time to repeal the cap. Advocacy Days participants were asked to urge legislators to do that by pushing both the House and Senate bills through committee to a vote.

Another issue is the continued use of the trust fund’s resources to plug holes in the budget. The funds are projected to bring in nearly $195 million in revenue this year, according to Florida Impact information, but more than $101 million was slated for general revenue. 

Doing so could further weaken the state’s economy, advocates say, because affordable housing projects create jobs, generate income from houses being built and sold, and leverage federal dollars. For every $1 million of state funding, more than $7.6 million of economic activity is generated, advocates say. And in the last three years, Florida has lost more than $603 million in federal money because dollars designated for affordable housing were inadequate.

One participant from Gadsden County asked what she could do to help a Meals on Wheels client she serves with her housing issues. The woman, she said, is blind and “really lives in deplorable housing.”

“The bad news,” Hendrickson said, “is nothing.”

Existing programs that provide assistance with down payments, rehabilitating and selling homes, and preserving existing homes receive funding from the Sadowski Fund.

One program, call State Housing Initiatives Partnership, could have helped, Hendrickson said, but it wasn’t funded last year and won’t be this year, after receiving as much as $160 million in previous years.

“The needs are greater than the dollars available,” Hendrickson said. “If it wasn’t for the (federal) housing stimulus money (Florida received) we would be sunk in this state.”

Florida Methodists march to the state capitol April 13 to meet with legislators and urge them to support bills that would help Florida children and families struggling with food and housing issues. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #10-1503. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

“You’re really at the mercy … of federal funding and taking existing inventory and making it better,” he said.

And because of other budget issues vying for legislators’ attention, a “full assault on the appropriations part” would have to wait until next year, Hendrickson said.

Issues resonate

“Here we had someone on food stamps and with real life issues, so I was disappointed we weren’t able to meet with people,” Wendi Waltz said.

Waltz, 35, was referring to Markham.

Like Markham, Waltz is a member at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Tallahassee. She also serves as social action coordinator for the United Methodist Women’s group.

Waltz said she and Markham enjoyed their trip to the capitol April 13, but were disappointed they weren’t able to meet with their legislators. Another group of Methodists had just met with them when she and Markham arrived for their appointment. Waltz said they didn’t feel it was necessary to repeat what the previous group had said so they gave up their meeting time.

Prior to the capitol visit, conference justice and outreach ministries staff grouped Advocacy Days participants by the areas in which they live and then scheduled meetings between those groups and their legislators. The double booking of the meeting time was due to confusion among some participants about the procedures for scheduling the meetings, a staff member said.

After meeting for prayer and breakfast early that morning at Trinity United Methodist Church, participants marched several blocks to the capitol for their appointed meetings.

Some met with their elected officials; others met with aides. It was late in the session and crunch time for bills being considered, prohibiting some legislators from meeting with participants.

Their reception, Advocacy Days participants said, was mixed.

Jean Gritman, a member at First United Methodist Church in Ormond Beach, met with aides for Republican Sens. John Thrasher and Stephen Wise from Jacksonville. She said one meeting went well, with the aide promising to pass on written information participants left behind, but the other aide was “not nearly as receptive.”

Florida Conference Bishop Timothy Whitaker concludes a meeting with Republican Sen. Durell Peaden from Crestview. The meeting was one of more than a dozen Florida Methodists had with legislators. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #10-1504. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

The Rev. Ken Hamilton, pastor at Tallahassee Heights United Methodist Church in Tallahassee, said he experienced the best reception he has received in the five years he has been participating in the advocacy event. He said it was also one of the most productive years, with real dialogue taking place.

Hamilton and his group met with an aide for Republican Sen. Carey Baker from Eustis, who, Hamilton said, was “up front” with them about not being familiar with the language in the food stamp bill. The aide also said he felt people needed to be just as concerned with the unemployment issue.

“I wanted to be here because this is a critical year in terms of elections,” Hamilton said. “This gives people a chance to be heard.”

Louvenia Sailor wants the needs of Gaston County, where she lives, to be heard. That’s what has drawn her to the advocacy event for the past five years. She says she has “always been kind of an activist. … It’s something I love; it’s in my blood.”

Sailor is a member at St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church in Qunicy and a life-long resident of Gaston County. She’s also a member of the Florida Impact board.

“All my life it’s been disadvantaged (the county),” she said. “We need everything we can get to lift those people up. If we don’t try and help our own community then no one else will.”

Last year, Sailor said, the push was for better health care for families. This year, she was particularly interested in seeing support for the enhanced meal program. And she wasn’t intimidated by the thought of asking her legislators for it.

“If you can go through 30 years with the (Florida) Department of Corrections, you can do anything,” said Sailor, who retired from the department as an administrator for the youth offender program.

The Rev. Freddie Tellis says his passion for children overcomes any intimidation he might feel, which, he admits, isn’t much, given his experience as a sergeant major in the U.S. Marines for 30 years and a pastor for the last seven years. He was also a high school teacher.

“I have never had a problem respectfully speaking my mind,” said Tellis, who is currently serving at Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Havana. “Things I care about and am passionate about … if I don’t speak about them, then who will?”

Children from a Tallahassee school sing on the steps of the Florida Capitol April 13 to kick off a Children’s Week press conference. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #10-1505. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

Among those concerns, he says, are hungry children. “A hungry child cannot learn, and if a hungry child cannot learn, he cannot be a productive member of society,” Tellis said. “Hunger leads to everything.” That includes substance abuse, crime, incarceration and a host of other issues, he says.

“I can’t imagine going to bed hungry,” Tellis added. “I’ve seen the effects on my children at school.”

So has the Rev. Pam Hall. “If you’ve ever seen how hunger hurts,” she said, “you never forget it.”

Hall is senior pastor at Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Melbourne. At one point in her ministry, she worked in a public school in a rural area. Hall said she saw hungry children there.

“Kids who haven’t had food hurt,” she said, adding there was none of the normal “wiggling or smiling” you see in kids who’ve had enough to eat.

Marie Rivera, a member at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Jacksonville and a former school teacher, said one child in her second grade class told her he came to school “for the food.”

Work to do

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist signed the state’s $70.2 billion budget May 28.

Among the days of deliberations that led to the final budget, the repeal of the housing cap did not pass. Florida Impact leaders say political maneuvering was the cause.

The House passed the bill repealing the cap and sent it to the Senate where it was tied up in committees, according to an action alert from Florida Impact. It was heard in the Senate, where an amendment unrelated to public housing assistance was attached, and sent back to the House, which removed the amendment and sent it back to the Senate. The Senate once again added the amendment and sent it back to the House, but the House adjourned before readdressing the bill, killing it. 

“We want to thank every single person who worked on this,” Florida Impact leaders said. “It is difficult to report that this important piece of legislation died due to political maneuvering.”

The news was much better for SNAP funding. Legislators approved more than $5.8 million for ACCESS technology enhancements, $6.3 million for salaries and benefits for employees working with eligibility services and a less than expected reduction in staffing.

And on June 24, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the Department of Agriculture is awarding additional funding to states for excellence in administering the SNAP program in 2009. Florida is among eight states splitting $24 million for the best payment accuracy rate and will receive more than $7.7 million. Florida was also awarded nearly $3.8 million as one of two states with the most improved negative error rate.

Thousands of paper cut-out and painted hand prints made by children from across Florida hang in the Florida Capitol rotunda during Children’s Week. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #10-1506. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

Child nutrition reauthorization and expansion of the meal program into Florida has yet to be decided. Both a Senate and House bill supporting reauthorization have passed.

The House Education and Labor Committee’s bill would increase child-nutrition programs by $8 billion over the next 10 years; the Senate Agriculture Committee passed a bill increasing funding by $4.5 billion.

Neither meets President Obama’s goal of $10 billion over the next 10 years, so Florida Impact leaders are urging people to contact Dem. Sen. Bill Nelson’s office and encourage him to increase the funding, moving it closer to the goal. Nelson is a member of the Senate Finance Committee.

Participants knew their job wouldn’t be over once the advocacy event ended. Susie made sure to remind them.

“You really have to build relationships (with representatives) when you get back home,” she told them. “This (the event) is just one part of it.

Nancy Dougherty reinforced the point, saying Florida Advocacy Days helped lay the groundwork for a 10-year plan to end homelessness in her community.

Dougherty is director of Joining Hands Community Mission in Holiday. She also helped coordinate the 2009 advocacy event.

After having a chance conversation with one of her area’s representative on a sidewalk three years ago at that advocacy event, Dougherty promised to call on him when she got home so they could talk more about poverty issues in their community. She did, and from that meeting, the representative developed a coalition of people to end homelessness, and the 10-year plan was born.

Susie also reminded participants that their “biggest weapon” is the fact they advocate not for themselves, but for others.

Tyler Turkle, executive director of Big Bend Habitat for Humanity and a panel member during the event’s training portion, offered some additional advice when talking to representatives.

“Always bring it (the issues) back to an individual,” he said. “It’s up to us to help the state legislature make the right decisions.”

Related stories

Florida United Methodists prepare to speak out for children

United Methodists speak out for children during advocacy event

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando
*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.