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City’s grant selections questioned

Sun., March 6, 2005

Jenny Trussell left a troubled home life two years ago and got caught up in a teenage world of partying and drug use.

When she became pregnant by her boyfriend, she turned to a small faith-based charity for help. Life Services of Spokane Maternity Home took her in and helped her become a mom.

“When Chase was born, I fell in love with him,” said Trussell, now 18. Without the home, she said, “I probably would have gotten an abortion and still be out partying with no goals.”

Hers is the kind of story that helped the Maternity Home jump ahead of other social-service agencies earlier this year to win, for the first time ever, a taxpayer-financed grant of $53,800 from the city of Spokane.

In selecting the group, city officials passed over several other established charities, including Planned Parenthood, while deciding how to divvy up $950,000 in human services grants.

Although no one questions the quality or value of the maternity home’s services, some social advocates are wondering how Life Services managed to capture city support at a time when others were left to fend for themselves.

“The whole thing is curious,” said Kimberly Wilcox, executive director of Shalom Ministries, which lost its funding bid for its “Dining with Dignity” meals program for the homeless.

City officials dismiss any suggestion that Christian-based groups appear to enjoy preference over others, saying the real problem is a shortage of grant money.

“The bottom line is if we had enough money, nobody would be saying a word,” said Rebecca Bishop, chair of the Human Services Advisory Board, which ranked and then recommended who would get the grants. The City Council accepted the proposal on Feb. 1, but asked the mayor’s staff to come up with another $53,000 to help some agencies left off the funding list.

Several years ago, former Mayor John Powers came under pressure from social service advocates to increase city contributions to agencies helping the poor and homeless. He agreed to maintain funding of 1 percent of the city’s general tax fund for human services grants.

Under Mayor Jim West, that amount has fallen slightly below the 1 percent mark, in large part because of citywide budget cuts.

It could fall even more in the future. Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers said human services grants could be lost if budget problems continue.

West said he’s unconvinced the grant program is good public policy. “Is it the city’s business to take other people’s money and donate it to charity?” he said. “Should the city be choosing winners and losers in the charity business?”

West suggested the city might contract for services instead, but he does not expect human services grants to increase in coming years given the city’s budget predicament. Besides, the mayor argued the city spends more than 1 percent on human services when recreation programs, federal housing grants, federally backed loans and tax incentives are taken into account.

Programs that were turned down for funding in 2005 would have helped low-income women be screened for cervical cancer through Planned Parenthood; provided pharmaceuticals to urban American Indians; increased support services and nutrition for people with the virus that causes AIDS; helped the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile reach more needy patients; and others.

“It’s really not acceptable,” said Susan Fabrikant, executive director of the Spokane AIDS Network, which lost a $30,000 request for money to help its low-income clients. The AIDS network received $12,000 last year.

At the same time, the city is preparing to launch a 10-year, $117 million upgrade of city streets, which was approved by voters last fall. The mayor is promoting purchase of high-tech vending machines to replace parking meters downtown at a cost of $600,000.

In the mix of funding priorities comes Life Services, a small homegrown agency that started the Maternity Home in 2000 and has helped about 100 teen clients since then. It is licensed as a group home and child placement agency for foster care.

The city grant will help cover the cost of increasing to eight or more the number of girls able to live at the maternity home at any one time. Currently, the program is able to serve five at a time.

The program is unabashedly pro-life. According to its mission statement, “Life Services of Spokane is a Christian organization dedicated to upholding the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. We empower people to make life-affirming choices related to sexual integrity and child bearing. We provide supportive services and education from a biblical perspective, and encourage a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Employees are required to have a commitment to faith. House parents are expected to serve as Christian role models.

One of the secrets of success, according to Maternity Home Director Linda Hanke, is making sure the girls know “they are loved unconditionally no matter where they come from.”

Trussell said she was uncomfortable when she arrived at the Maternity Home in 2003. “I didn’t like the whole pushy Christian thing at first,” she said.

But her attitude began changing.

She had been considering an abortion, but rejected that when she saw the fetus move during an ultrasound exam. She had planned to give her son up for adoption until she looked him in the eyes right after his birth.

Today, she has a different view of the home. “Now, they are kind of like my family,” she said.

The home’s support helped her take other steps to straighten out her life, she said. She has since re-established ties with her mother and father, who are divorced, and moved into her own apartment. She is enrolled at Spokane Community College in the Running Start program and at the Spokane Skills Center in the nursing assistant program. She works full time as a nurse’s aide in an adult family home, and wants to become an emergency room doctor someday.

“I’m pretty proud of myself,” she said.

Another one of the girls credits the home with helping her quit abusing drugs and turn her attention to her daughter and her own future.

The home had sought city human services funding in 2003 and 2004, but didn’t win a grant until this year. The organization requested $89,800 and was granted $53,800.

All the agencies that won grants were given less than they requested.

The Maternity Home wasn’t the only new grant recipient. Other new programs included on the list in 2005 were the Salvation Army’s new transitional housing program for families at $12,000; a Boys and Girls Club nutritional program for kids at $21,000; Spokane Mental Health’s assistance for mentally ill who are ineligible for Medicaid; and a Community Health Association of Spokane program for behavioral health for homeless persons.

Members of the Human Services Advisory Board reviewed each application and gave it a score based on several criteria. For example, agencies that were able to use city money as matching funds for other grants were given higher scores.

Board Chairwoman Bishop described the selection process as similar to grading papers. She said she is unaware of any subjective judgments being exercised by board members.

West said he had no input into the selection process, which dates back a decade and was set up under the guidance of the City Council.

The mayor said he has asked an independent professional outside of City Hall to review the grant process for how well it works, and he is considering a request by council members to come up with an additional $53,000 for nine of the agencies denied grants.

Councilman Bob Apple said he believes the human services board erred in its selections. He said the Boys and Girls Club of Spokane County is receiving money for a nutrition and wellness program for kids while Shalom Ministries may be forced to close its meals program for homeless: “That bothers me.”


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