Meals on Wheels, one of America’s best-known charitable initiatives, operates on a simple idea: For senior Americans who are homebound and have trouble getting food on the table, a hot meal delivered by a member of their community is a critical service.
In the Crossroads, the Community Action Committee of Victoria provides hot meals to hundreds of seniors in three counties. In Victoria, the group delivers meals every weekday to 21 people.
“This is more than just a hot meal. It’s a wellness check,” said Vicki Smith, the executive director of the Community Action Committee of Victoria. “Sometimes the meal deliverer is the only person these people see in a day.”
Community Action’s meal delivery service in Victoria is funded, in part, by a federal program that allows the city to support local nonprofits and pay for projects in poorer neighborhoods of the city. The Community Development Block Grant program was created in 1974 and doles out $3 billion each year to cities, counties and states to promote economic growth and affordable housing.
The city of Victoria is getting ready to prepare its annual CDBG Action Plan for 2019-2020, which allocates the roughly $500,000 the city gets each year to nonprofits and other projects throughout the city. Last year, $14,900 was allocated to Community Action’s meal delivery program, and almost $100,000 was designated to pay for upgrades to Hopkins neighborhood park, among other projects.
Some of Victoria’s biggest projects to support residents in need were funded by federal dollars through the grant program.
Mid-Coast Family Services, which supports women and children who are victims of domestic violence, was able to get started on its shelter in 2008 in part thanks to CDBG funds from the city.
“For us to get CDBG money on the front end, it kind of jump-started us and helped us be able to say this was something we could actually do, and it wasn’t just a dream,” said Ginny Stafford, the group’s CEO. Stafford estimated that CDBG dollars paid for about 30 percent of the total cost of the shelter, which replaced an aging house the nonprofit had been using with a new structure built specifically for the group’s needs.
The city of Victoria has received CDBG since it became an entitlement city in the 1990s, and it’s a funding source that a growing number of cities have relied on to pay for social programs. One research report said the program provides the “most sizable, stable and comprehensive support for community and economic development.”
The amount of money the city receives is determined by a formula that spits out a designated number based on the city’s population and other factors. Although Victoria has seen modest population growth since the 1990s, the amount of money it has received from the federal government has dropped from about $1 million when it began to about half that today. That dip in funding is something all entitlement cities have experienced as more cities join the program without any changes in funding available.
Because of the steady decrease in funding, it’s unlikely the city will be able to undertake any ambitious public projects like Swan Crossing. Swan Crossing was a 12-acre subdivision the city built using CDBG funds and local tax dollars. The homes were designated for residents at or below specific income levels, and the program also included mortgage assistance to encourage new homeowners to buy property.
“I don’t think that with the current rules and with the current entitlement that we will have the ability to do a large infrastructure project like that again,” said Julie Fulgham, the city’s top planner.
On top of the decline in funding, the program faces regular threats every time politicians in Washington, D.C., debate whether to continue it. President Donald Trump’s proposed 2020 budget would cut the program entirely, a recommendation he’s made in previous budget years that’s been repeatedly overridden by Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Although some critics of the program say it’s an ineffective way to help the country’s most vulnerable residents, many legislators stand by it because it’s such a popular program among city governments.
As the dollars from the federal government have dipped, the city staff who work on allocating CDBG dollars have focused on supporting local nonprofits.
Celeste Menchaca, Victoria’s community development planner, said the current planning process focuses on using the money to help local groups that are familiar with what their communities need.
“If we didn’t have the federal grant, I think that we wouldn’t be funding the public service agencies like we fund (them),” Fulgham said. “I think it would be very disastrous to them and some of those programs” if the funding were to stop.
In the coming weeks, the city will also begin a yearlong process of soliciting feedback for the five-year plan, which will outline the major areas where the city wants to spend its CDBG dollars.
In the city’s last five-year plan, published in 2015, affordable housing was recognized as one of the biggest needs in the city.
The CDBG funds take on particular importance as the country gets closer to 2020, when the next census will count the official number of residents in Victoria and across the U.S. The numbers are critical to determine adequate representation for communities in state and federal legislatures, and they can also help determine how much cities can get in state and federal funding.