The Portland City Council voted 6-2 Monday not to set aside $90,000 in federal grant money to help low-income families get child care so parents can find work or access counseling to become self-sufficient. Instead, $40,000 of that money will go to programs that serve the homeless in Portland.

The vote was a reversal for the council, which voted unanimously in October to prioritize child care subsidies while allocating federal Community Development Block Grants. The set-aside was adopted because child care did not historically score well against more high-profile services for the homeless.

Several councilors expressed concern that the child care program was funded at the expense of a homeless shelter for teenagers and the Home Outreach Mobile Engagement team operated by the Milestone Foundation, which responds to reports of incapacitated homeless people on the streets.

Both programs scored higher than the child care program in the vetting process but were not funded because of the set-aside.

Councilor Jill Duson said she would be consistent and vote to eliminate the child care set-aside. Duson noted that she previously opposed the set-aside and an older system of awarding bonus points for certain programs.

“If I’m choosing between child care or helping a homeless teen get out of harm’s way, I am going to make the difficult decision to help a teen get out of harm’s way,” Duson said.

Councilors did not address the fact that the Portland Police Department benefits from a set-aside as well. The community policing program is getting $150,000 – nearly a quarter of the $625,000 available in the roughly $1.7 million CDBG budget for more than a dozen social service programs.

Every year, the council sets a budget for spending the federal money intended to help low-income people. Routinely, requests from nonprofit groups and social service agencies exceed the available funding.

This year was no different. The city received more than $3.5 million in funding requests, but has only about $1.7 million available. The child care program is a partnership of four agencies: Catherine Morrill Day Nursery, Youth and Family Outreach, The Opportunity Alliance, and Peaks Island Children’s Workshop. Child care has received funding for the last five years. However, the council changed its policy to eliminate bonus points for valuable programs, including child care.

In October, the council deemed the child care program a priority, voting 7-0 to set aside $90,000 in this year’s funding cycle to provide education and food to children.

As a result of Monday’s vote, this year the program will receive $50,000. That’s similar to last year’s allocation but not as much as previously, said Councilor David Brenerman, who voted to keep the set-aside.

“I believe so strongly in the benefits of child care,” Brenerman said. “If we want to encourage people to work, one way to do that is to provide quality and affordable child care to those folks who are the aim of our CDBG funding.”

One of the parents helped by the child care program is Evelyne Kanku, 30, a mother of two originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Kanku said in an interview before Monday’s meeting that she almost had to give up her job as a teacher at Youth and Family Outreach, a nonprofit and day care in Bayside, after she lost her state assistance last summer. The loss of state assistance for child care suddenly would have increased a $50-a-week expense to $460 a week. The grant-backed child care scholarship allowed her to keep her job and her child care until September, when her oldest daughter, Ashley, began attending school. Now she can afford to pay the cost of care for her 2-year-old daughter, Benny.

“It’s a relief to have something to help you get through and to know your child is in a safe place and good quality of education,” Kanku said. “That money helps a lot of people around here.”

Laurie Moses, executive director of Catherine Morrill Day Nursery, which administers the funding, was concerned that the city was changing its policy so late in the process. She told the council that her program has never scored as low as it did this cycle, and that she would have appealed, were it not for the set-aside.

“I thought it would be silly for us to appeal the score because we were recommended,” Moses said.

Ultimately, the council voted to reallocate $40,000 of the funding to Milestone’s Home Outreach Mobile Engagement team and Preble Street’s Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter.

Milestone Foundation Executive Director Bob Fowler said it costs $500 a day to operate the HOME team, which saves the city $10,000 a day by avoiding the use of emergency services to transport patients to emergency rooms.

Fowler urged the council to at least support the city manager’s recommendation and even consider additional funding for the program. “Frankly, I think that’s the discussion we should be having – how to expand that program,” he said.

In a memo to the City Council, the Milestone Foundation said it costs $171,000 to operate the HOME team, with $75,000 coming from federal grants and $25,000 from the city’s health and human services budget.

A grant from the Doree Taylor Charitable Foundation provides $30,000, while $15,000 is provided by the John T. Gorman Foundation. The Portland Downtown District and Mercy Hospital contributed $5,000 each.

It would cost an additional $11,250 to run the service seven days a week, as opposed to six days a week.

In other Community Development Block Grant allocations Monday, the council approved $47,700 for the city-run Oxford Street Shelter for housing assistance for long-term stayers. The city’s Social Services Department will receive $46,860 for an after-hours program at the Family Shelter, while Preble Street will receive $45,000 for its soup kitchen and $40,000 for its resources center.

Amistad, which helps people with mental illness, will receive more than $90,000 for its peer support/recovery program and peer coaching.

The council also allocated $875,000 in development funding, including $408,000 to the city’s Public Works Department for Marginal Way and Bayside-area road and sidewalk improvements, and $216,000 for handicapped-accessibility upgrades.

The Portland Housing Authority will receive $30,000 for the 58 Boyd St. Apartments and an additional $15,000 surveillance system. Coastal Enterprises Inc. will receive $135,000 for the Portland Job Alliance.

Mayor Ethan Strimling recused himself Monday from the Community Development Block Grant process, because he formerly worked as the executive director of LearningWorks, a West End nonprofit that helps low-income people, immigrants and at-risk youth. That agency received $43,000 in grant funding.


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