Community leaders ask lawmakers for low income support

 Tonya Thomas, of Des Moines, shares her story during a press conference at Renton
Tonya Thomas, of Des Moines, shares her story during a press conference at Renton's Compass Veterans Center on Thursday. Community leaders, including (left of Thomas) Sharonne Navas, of Equity in Education Coalition, and Debadutta Dash, of the Washington state India Trade Relations Action Committee, spoke out on state budget cuts.
— image credit: Tracey Compton, Renton Reporter

Community leaders and advocates gathered at Renton's Compass Veterans Center to speak out about the effects proposed state budget cuts will have on Washington residents, specifically people of color and low-income families.

Thursday afternoon's press conference coincided with a letter that was sent to legislators and Gov. Jay Inslee from more than 40 organizations, asking the state Legislature to pass a budget that invests in communities of color and strengthens the middle class.

Renton was chosen as the site of the event because the Compass Center is an example of an affordable-housing development made possible through Housing Trust Fund money, one of the funds slated for cuts, as part of the Senate's proposed budget.The Renton community is also home to many people who have used or currently benefit from state-funded programs that could see a reduction in funds, depending on how the state House of Representatives and Senate work out the budget and come to an agreement, leaders said.

"Renton, Kent, Auburn are transitional neighborhoods," said Jaime Garcia in an interview after the event. He is the executive director of Consejo Counseling and Referral Services, serving the Latino community. "They are neighborhoods that are going to be heavily impacted by cuts like this."

South King County is an example of an area that has seen shifts in the upper and middle class to lower incomes because of job and retirement losses due to the recession, he said.

"This building was built with Housing Trust Funds," Garcia said, referring to the Compass Center. "If we cut the Housing Trust Fund, we won't have anymore services, especially for veterans, who are overrepresented by Latinos, African Americans. Because (military service) is a pathway to get a job; it's a pathway for citizenship for many undocumented Latinos."

Garcia called the Compass Center a good example of what works and said that the progress it represents needs to continue. He was joined by a panel of community leaders in calling for the state House and Senate to evaluate their budget proposals. Sharonne Navas, director for Equity in Education Coalition; Debadutta Dash, co-chair of Washington state India Trade Relations Action Committee and Paola Maranan, executive director of Children's Alliance were also on the panel. Lacy Steele, president emeritus of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for Seattle, King County, introduced the speakers and moderated the event.

Renton City Council member Ed Prince attended the press conference, but not in his official capacity with the council. Prince is also the executive director of the Washington state Commission on African-American Affairs and works with the Equity in Education Coalition.

"How I think that it's going to impact Renton is that the funds that are not in the Senate's budget will have an impact on our residents here in the city of Renton that are struggling with housing and homelessness and the services they need to get on their feet," Prince said.

In his work with the coalition, Prince has been testifying, meeting with lawmakers about the issues that affect communities of color. When it comes to the opportunity gap, Prince said, there needs to be more social and emotional support provided for all students of color to create a level educational playing field.

Mariah Mitchell used to be a Renton resident until she became homeless last August. After learning of the press event from a friend with the Children's Alliance, Mitchell decided to come to the event to share her story. She graduated from the University of Washington in 2005 with two degrees and has been looking for employment for more than two years. When she became homeless, Mitchell called Hopelink and was relocated to Bellevue.

"I'm in danger of being kicked off TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), being homeless, not being able to find a job and not having childcare for my children while I try to obtain employment."

Mitchell is hopeful that the budget and programs issues will be resolved, but is doubtful that any real gains will come with the new state budget.

"They'll probably just kick the can down the road again on housing and childcare and children's issues," she said.

Garcia isn't really optimistic either, but says he has hope because that's all anyone has at this point.

"They've cut all the fat away," he said. "They've cut muscle; we're down to bone. So we're now into amputation and that's kind of a grotesque way to look at it, but we're really into some tough times."

Garcia isn't sure about what he calls a "renegade Senate," some progressive members of House and a new governor, who's skilled in Washington, D.C., but not Olympia. Many of the panelists in the press conference were concerned that the state Supreme Court's McCleary decision, to support fully funding public education, would do so at the expense of the state's most vulnerable residents.

"And now with the state Supreme Court ruling on education, we need to make that step forward, but not on the backs of poor people," Garcia said.




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