BY SARA DRUMM
CLEARWATER - Automatic federal spending cuts have been taking effect since March 1, and social service programs are among those being hit.
Some have already felt the impact on their budgets and programs; others are still waiting to find out how much they will have to cut.
Suncoast Center, a nonprofit that provides services throughout Pinellas County dealing with child abuse, behavioral health and family stability, has not been affected yet, said Kristin Mathre, Suncoast's chief operating officer. The sequestration cuts, though, have forced the agency to delay its budget process for next fiscal year until it learns how much money it will lose, she said.
On average, human services, aging and nutrition programs will see cuts of about 5 percent, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.
The Neighborly Care Network, which offers services for seniors in Pinellas, has already received two rounds of funding cuts, one in April and one this week.
That can translate into significant cuts for specific programs, such as the agency's senior dining program, which took a $142,418 cut. That's a 16 percent loss in funding.
The agency also lost 4 percent of its budget for its Meals on Wheels program, which delivers hot meals to home-bound seniors, and 3 percent of its budget for adult day care, which helps keeps seniors out of nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
The state government decided the amount of funding to cut for each program.
The Neighborly Care Network has had to tell 90 seniors that it doesn't have the funding for them to keep coming to the senior dining program, which provides lunch and activities five days a week.
Some have asked if they can keep coming if they bring their own lunches so that they can socialize, said Marsha Coke, the Neighborly Care Network's director of adult day care and nutrition services.
The nonprofit is also considering cutting routes with its Meals on Wheels program, which became the first to receive federal funding in 1968.
The senior dining program provides a balanced meal for seniors five days a week at 10 locations throughout Pinellas County - food that may be a person's only meal of the day. Many take half of their meals home for dinner. Perhaps even more importantly, the program gives people a place to gather and socialize.
"This place saved my life," said Rosalie Priel, 72, after playing bingo during a recent lunch in Pinellas Park.
Priel said she, like many others in the program, has struggled with depression and loneliness.
"If I didn't have this place to come to, I would go absolutely nuts," she said. "I have a husband, a cat and a bird. It's not enough company."
The program offers activities such as bingo, movies and nutrition counseling. It also gives volunteers and employees a chance to keep an eye out for changes in people's health.
"It does a lot for them," said program employee Otis Sutton, 59, of Largo. "I love seeing the smiles on their faces."
The Neighborly Care Network has applied for grants and is looking for private partners to increase funding, but nothing is concrete right now, and the waiting lists for their programs are growing longer. One hundred and thirty people are hoping to join the senior dining program, and 585 are on the list for Meals on Wheels.
"A lot of these people won't be able to remain independent," Coke said. "If they go into a nursing home, the taxpayer will pay for that."