Are you a health care worker? We’d love to hear from you. Email editor at northcarolinahealthnews.org

By Sarah Ovaska-Few

Four weeks into the federal government shutdown, Rochelle Poe is distraught, unable to pay the January rent for her Raleigh townhome and facing possible eviction.

Poe, a 20-year employee and mortgage underwriter for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says the threat of eviction over her $1,092 overdue rent has made it difficult to sleep or eat. She’s tried selling belongings, taking purses to a consignment shop and listing a new TV on Facebook’s Marketplace. Friends have chipped in money for groceries and gas.

Furloughed USDA worker Rochelle Poe. Photo courtesy: Rochelle Poe

“We want to go back work,” Poe said, about herself and fellow federal workers. “We’re not looking for a handout or anything, we just want to go back to our jobs so we can pay our bills.”

Also frustrating, she said, is a lack of collective anger from the public over the shutdown, with a fraction of the nation’s workforce affected.

“There’s no real outrage about the fact that we are going without,” Poe said.

Word came Wednesday, the same day her landlord said eviction proceedings would start, that a friend could loan Poe the rent money. It brought obvious relief but still leaves Poe with little to live on while she waits to find out when she can start working again.

“I was able to sleep last night for the first time in weeks,” Poe said.

Effects felt in NC

While the nation looks to Washington to resolve their differences, the effects of the shutdown are being felt, acutely for some like Poe, in North Carolina.

Of the nation’s federal agencies, several such as the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs had their 2019 budgets approved before the stalemate over immigration and President Donald Trump’s push to build a wall along the southern border.

The list of critical needs at Fayetteville Urban Ministry includes more than 60 items. Photo credit: Sarah Ovaska-Few

But among the nine affected agencies are the Departments of State, Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Homeland Security, Transportation and Treasury.  [A full list is here.]

An estimated 800,000 workers have been furloughed, meaning they’re not at work, while an additional 420,000, who are deemed essential, have been working without pay. Also affected are federal government contractors, who are not working, and may not see back pay once the government is back up and running.

Here in North Carolina, an analysis by Governing magazine estimates 7,678 federal employees work at agencies where they’re either being furloughed or working without pay.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is using reserves to keep its hospital and tribal health care running as normal, according to a news report from the Cherokee One Feather, a news publication that covers the North Carolina tribe. The hospital, which gets approximately a third of its funding through the federal Indian Health Service, could face bigger problems if the shutdown continues for an extended period of time.

Gov. Roy Cooper has expressed concern that the federal shutdown could delay ongoing recovery work from last year’s hurricanes as well.

Housing help frozen

The Fayetteville Urban Ministry, a non-profit that distributes food, clothing and more to the needy, is bracing for an increase in requests for help as a result of the federal government shutdown and the reality of no paychecks in a town with a lot of federal contractors.

“We’ll see it spike,” said Johnny Wilson, the organization’s executive director.

Deborah Hanley, left, goes over food items she received with Chanell N’Smith of Fayetteville Urban Ministry. Photo credit: Sarah Ovaska-Few

In 2013, when the federal government was shut down for 16 days, the Fayetteville organization served more than double the number of people it usually served, offering emergency food provisions and clothing, Wilson said. This year, they’ve had full waiting rooms of those looking for help, though Wilson was unsure if it’s due to the shutdown or the struggles many have to stay afloat.

One of its nonprofit’s most powerful weapons against homelessness – one-time emergency money to help with rent or mortgage payments – is caught up in the wide net of disruptions from the impasse in Washington.

“That’s the one that’s really impacted by this,” Wilson said. “We are on the pause button.”

The funds come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, one of several federal agencies that haven’t had their 2019 budgets authorized. The nonprofit had a small reserve but exhausted that in just a week, Wilson said.

[sponsor]

So, the organization is back to doing what it can and offering clothing and food to those who qualify and are in need.

Collecting food at the nonprofit Friday was Deborah Hanley, who said she’s been pinning her hope for survival on a hearing date next month with the Social Security Administration.

Mental health and heart issues, including a heart attack in September that left the uninsured woman with more than $20,000 in unpaid hospital bills, prevent her from working, she said.

But, while she thinks the hearing will go forward as the agency is one of the several to have funding, Hanley is unsure if she will see any additional delays in getting the benefits if she’s approved.

Deborah Hanley, who expects to be homeless by the end of the month, looks at the fresh food offerings at Fayetteville Urban Ministry’s food pantry. Photo credit: Sarah Ovaska-Few

She and her adult son are on the brink of homelessness, unable to come up with the weekly $200 they pay to stay at a low-budget motel. Her son works two retail jobs but has had hours slashed in the new year.

“We’re about to be on the street,” Hanley said, crying as she held onto bags of donated food.

Food stamps released early

In response to the federal government shutdown, the USDA also called on the state to release February funds for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by Jan. 20, meaning that those who depend on the food assistance program commonly known as food stamps will receive their benefits earlier than normal.

While glad to have access to February funds, there’s concern from state health officials about whether struggling families may quickly go through their February benefits. State health officials are working to let families know so they can budget, said Susan Perry-Manning, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services deputy secretary in charge of the food stamps program.

The state agency also wants to get the word out that benefits are available now and for the next month.

“They don’t have to worry until the end of February,” she said. “Everything is business as usual.”

But there’s no clarity about what happens in March, should the shutdown extend that long. As of now, there’s no funding to distribute March benefits for SNAP or for the Woman, Infants, and Children program, which provides low-income mothers of young children with food assistance, Perry-Manning said.

The unprecedented nature of the shutdown has also meant conflicting messages on what is happening with local distribution of the federal SNAP program.

USDA has told states that the shutdown won’t impact the processing of new enrollees to the program and N.C. DHHS is encouraging counties to continue enrolling those who need help.

But earlier this week, the Orange County government was advising the opposite in a Facebook post, stating that those newly seeking help getting food on their table wouldn’t be able to sign up due to the shutdown.

When contacted, Lindsey Shewmaker of Orange County’s social services department said the county agency was trying to convey the overall uncertainty of what happens if the shutdown extends into late February and March. She emphasized that there is food available at their offices for those who need it.

“If there are any disruptions to benefits, they can come here and get food,” Shewmaker said.

For those looking to help others while the federal government is in limbo, consider making donations to local food pantries or food banks, Perry-Manning said.

“Making donations to their local food banks is a great way to help people that don’t have access to foods,” Perry-Manning said. “Now is a good time as is any time.”

 

[Note: This post has changed from the original to reflect Rochelle Poe is using Facebook Marketplace to sell her belongings, not Craigslist.]

Sarah Ovaska

Sarah Ovaska is a freelance writer based in Orange County, who has called North Carolina home for well over a decade. She’s reported on criminal justice, education, health and government issues at publications...