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Updated: February 24, 2020 Nonprofit Notebook

Nonprofits say state funding boost would save taxpayers money

Photos | Contributed Community Solutions Inc. CEO Fernando Muñiz said the state should spend more money on nonprofits like his that help that formerly incarcerated residents reenter society and the workforce.

Diana, a 49-year-old resident of a Hartford halfway house, is looking for a job. Any job.

“It doesn’t matter if I’m cleaning toilets,” Diana said, adding that she is eager to reenter the workforce after years of addiction and incarceration. “Even if it’s 150 dollars [a week], I would be proud because it’s not coming from something illegal,” she said.

Diana, who asked that her last name not be published, works daily on her job hunt with her counselors at Community Solutions Inc., a Bloomfield-based nonprofit with a $32-million annual budget and programs in 10 states and Canada. The majority of the funding that pays for the agency’s six-prison reentry programs in the Hartford area comes from state and federal sources, and Community Solutions CEO Fernando Muñiz is among other nonprofit executives asking for more money in the coming legislative session.

Up to 400 people are in prison at any given time in Connecticut who could be in work-release programs like the one Diana participates in, Muñiz said.

“We’ve got folks sitting in the most costly part of the criminal-justice system when we could be serving those folks in the community and integrating them back into the communities from which they come,” Muñiz said. Gesturing toward the halfway house in which Diane lives, he added, “This is less expensive than prison … running this kind of program is a cost savings for the state.”

Muñiz and others are making this argument to state legislators in the wake of Gov. Ned Lamont’s initial fiscal 2021 budget proposal, which saw little in increased funding for nonprofits.

The CT Community Nonprofit Alliance, a group of about 600 organizations across the state that rely on government funding, has said its agencies are collectively $462 million in the hole every year due to stagnant state funding and inflationary cost increases. Alliance officials are asking lawmakers for about $92 million a year from future projected surpluses for the next five years to help make up the difference and meet demand.

Since Connecticut relies on nonprofits to provide most of its human services, it’s only fair to increase spending as the demand for services increases, said Jeff Shaw, senior director of advocacy and public policy for the Alliance.

“The time really is now to restore the funding that’s been cut over time and make sure these services are available to people that need them,” Shaw said. “The economy will also be better off in the end.”

About 88% of Community Solutions’ $32-million budget comes from state and federal fees and grants, Muñiz said, underscoring just how reliant his nonprofit is on government funding.

Lamont previously rejected calls from nonprofits to tap the state’s $2.5 billion rainy day fund to increase support for social-service providers.

He’s also urged wealthier residents to step up their giving to community organizations, though nonprofits say that isn’t a long-term solution to their fiscal challenges.

Connecticut spends about $1.4 billion annually contracting with hundreds of nonprofits that provide state social services, according to the CT Mirror.

Connecticut residents annually donate around $3 billion to charities and foundations, according to the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy.

Among the human services seeing high demand in the state right now are addiction treatment related to the national opioid crisis, Shaw said.

There has also been a surge in the number of disabled people on waiting lists for residential and day programs due to the state’s aging population. Prison reentry programs are also seeing high demand as the state seeks to reduce the number of people incarcerated and improve the transition of ex-offenders into the community, Shaw added.

Meantime, corporate and philanthropic giving has failed to keep pace with demand, Shaw said, especially as many non-governmental grants are very specific, making them little use for keeping established programs going or expanding.

“It’s not all about funding — it really is about addressing community needs,” Shaw said. “Yes, there’s a financial impact there, but there’s also a human impact there. We want people to be healthy, well, stable and living productive lives.”

Jenna DeMeo helps run the Aileen O’Connor halfway house in Hartford.

A second chance

The road to a productive life at Community Solutions starts on the first day a client is released from prison, according to Jenna DeMeo, acting program director at the agency’s Aileen O’Connor halfway house in Hartford.

Many clients need help immediately with obtaining the documents they’ll need to get a job: a photo ID, medical and other records and a Social Security card. Then counselors help them obtain their GED or other job training, followed by assistance with online job searches and applications.

Employers can be reluctant to hire ex-offenders but several Hartford-area companies have been proactive in working with Community Solutions clients, DeMeo said, including Eversource, Dollar Tree and the Bear’s Smokehouse BBQ chain of restaurants.

Muñiz added that a legislative working group has been meeting this winter to investigate the impact of background checks on ex-offenders seeking work and to propose solutions to both protect the public and remove barriers to employment.

“These work-release programs can be a really great recruitment source,” Muñiz said. “We can be a pipeline for jobs that can be harder to fill.”

“I always stress to the employers that the clients are here to work,” DeMeo said. “You’re not going to have a person who is flaky, who is calling out all the time, who is late, who is not doing well on the job because they don’t want to be there. The whole premise of the clients being here is to work. This will potentially be one of the best employees you’ve ever had.”

This story was done with support from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.

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