YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


No shelter from fiscal quagmire

September 12, 2008|DANA PARSONS

What happens when state government doesn't work? When legislators don't do their jobs?

People like the 17-year-old girl across the table, living in a shelter instead of a jail cell, start feeling scared.

I'll return to her story in a minute, but let me pose a question:

Shouldn't there be some punishment for people sitting on millions of dollars that's supposed to go to those who need it -- but can't get it -- solely because those elected to dispense the money can't function?

Could you blame the intended recipients for going a bit crazy? Angry, perhaps? Which is pretty much how I phrase the question to Rocio Watson, the executive director of the Women's Living Transitional Center, an Orange County shelter for women trying to escape abusive situations. Because of the ongoing budget impasse, the shelter hasn't gotten any of its state funds for the last three months. "We're about $300,000 in the hole right now," Watson says.

"As a community member, I don't think they have the right to do this, to play politics with people's lives," she says of the state legislators. She's concerned about her staff and the 122 women and children at the shelter, but could just as well be speaking for any number of nonprofit organizations or other groups waiting for the lawmakers to do their jobs.

Watson has seen this act before, but never this bad. "It's never smooth sailing for nonprofits," she says, "because you never really know if you're going to get the same amount every year. However, this is the worst it's been in the 31 years we've been around."

About 70% of the shelter's budget comes from state and federal funds; private donations and foundations account for the rest. At the end of May, the shelter learned it wouldn't get about $310,000 that had been previously budgeted. Watson cut its operating budget by one-third, to around $100,000 a month.

That cut was bearable, Watson says, but staffers were laid off. The ongoing stalemate since then, however, put the shelter on the brink.

"This time last week," Watson says, "we appealed to our board, and they dug into their own pockets and helped us make payroll. We were ready to shut down last Friday."

That doomsday scenario prompted Watson to go public, both with the media and with fundraising appeals. It snagged $20,000 in recent days from people with good hearts but still needs an additional $77,000 in the next week. Unlike a week ago, she's now hopeful that in the short run, she can raise the money.

But that doesn't absolve legislators. Without a budget settlement, "we're week to week," Watson says.

Does it matter? Is this just a bleeding-heart operation that no one would notice if it disappeared?

As some of you say, "Amen, brother!," consider the 17-year-old at the table with me. As with all women at the center, officials insist on her anonymity because of the potential threat from the abusers in their lives. Likewise, the center's location is kept a secret.

The young woman's story is all too common. She's got two young children and used methamphetamine with her boyfriend, who also abused her. Facing a drug-related arrest, she got a ticket to the center instead of jail. She and her children came to the center four months ago. She claims to be a different person.

"I didn't know how to be a mom when I got here," she says. "I doubted I was going to make it, but I made it. I'm happy and surprised that I did make it."

I ask what I would've seen if I'd met her four months ago. "A mom who didn't know how to take care of her kids," she says. "I'm not saying I know now how to take care of them perfectly. . . . "

But, she says, finishing the thought, that she's getting better every day. And if the center shut down, well, that's when the fear of losing her kids would strike her.

So, in pondering budget impasses that imperil places like the center, we can rightly ask what we'd be doling out, in its absence, for a teenage druggie with two children in tow?

If the young woman is honestly assessing herself, the center saved us a bunch of money and may have turned the young woman into a productive member of society.

"The part that makes me furious," says a woman also at the table, "is if this place had to close down, it wouldn't be able to help those who come after me." The woman, 48, is scheduled to leave the facility this week after a 90-day stay.

Her abusive boyfriend left her a shell of her former self, she says. Her stay at the center "made me realize I am worth living for. They built up my confidence to what it was before."

Abused women are accustomed to feeling vulnerable and helpless in the face of those who hold the power.

Is that how it feels to be at the mercy of the Legislature?

"We are vulnerable," says the older woman, "but we also know now that we are worth being saved. We're vulnerable to the Legislature and whether the funding comes through, but it's different than before. That's what this place has given us."


Dana Parsons' column appears Tuesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at An archive of his recent columns is at

Los Angeles Times Articles