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How Trump's Cuts To Community Development Could Affect One Connecticut City

Mar 21, 2017

President Donald Trump’s budget proposal plans to zero out funding for something called Community Development Block Grants -- money that goes from the federal government to states and municipalities to use as they see fit.

But while the president said the grants don’t bring results, some on the ground disagree. This second in a series about the local effect of Trump’s federal budget focuses on the city of Hartford. 

Cities across Connecticut get anywhere from a few hundred thousand dollars to a few million dollars a year, with an eye on serving community development needs. The program started in 1975, and has spent $150 billion since then.

But if the president has his way, that will change.

His budget eliminates what’s known as the CDBG program. His budget director, Mick Mulvaney, said last week that programs need to show results -- and these programs don’t.

“To take the federal money and give it to the states and say, ‘Look, we want to give you money for programs that don’t work,’ I can’t defend that anymore. We can't defend that anymore. We’re $20 trillion in debt. We’re going to spend money. We’re going to spend a lot of money,” Mulvaney said. “But we’re not going to spend it on programs that cannot show they actually deliver the promises that we've made to people.”

Last year, the city of Hartford got just over $3 million for everything from riverfront development to homeowner retention programs to revolving loan funds for merchants to after school initiatives to housing for former prisoners and shelter beds for the homeless.

One program that gets funding is Open Hearth, which is where I met Donyale Newman. We spoke in the 25-bed emergency shelter that he manages.

The agency has gotten big CDBG grants to keep mold out of its building and smaller ones to keep the place afloat. As house manager, Newman said he sees all kinds of people who need a place to sleep -- a man whose house burned down, another with degrees and a job who hit a rough patch, people with mental health issues, guys he knew from growing up in Hartford.

“You have guys that I played high school basketball with, against, we ran around together as kids, doing what kids do, and, unfortunately, my life went one way, which wasn't always good, either, and their life went another way,” he said.

But Newman’s first experience at Open Hearth wasn’t as an employee. It was after he left prison.

“I have a past,” he said. “Just being honest, I did halfway house time here. I did do some prison time, I did more than I’d like to talk about. But when I sit across from another man, and, often times, we crossed each other in prison. Often times we have history together, from when life was a little different. When I sit and tell a man, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’m going to help you get through this. Don’t worry about it. I know exactly what you’re going through.’ They look at me and they say, ‘He’s right.’”

Open Hearth's emergency shelter has 25 beds for men in need of short-term home.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR

With that in mind, I put budget director Mulvaney’s question to him directly.

Is Open Hearth worth it?

“Look at me. Literally,” he answered. “I’m standing here as a success story, someone that came through this program, and was afforded opportunities and given a chance to change my life.”

Marilyn Rossetti runs the Open Hearth, and she said she can defend her work and the work of her employees.

“If they want to talk stats, 85 percent of the guys who left here last year went to some type of housing,” she said. “Whether it’s on their own, back with family, you know, shared, those are stats. We have stats.”

Marilyn Rossetti runs Open Hearth in Hartford.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR

Rossetti said cutting that funding to her organization and others would decimate the city. I asked her if that word -- decimate -- was too strong. She stood by it.

“I say decimate because, you know what, Jeff? It’s our city, and then it’s another city, and it’s another city and it’s a town and it’s a town,” she said. “So, I say these organizations are a domino effect and then all those city and towns are domino effects and it just spreads across the country.”

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin administers the $3 million a year the city gives out in federal funding, and he likes the latitude that Washington gives mayors like him to put the money where it’s needed the most.

“That's the powerful thing about CDBG is the federal government isn’t telling you how to spend it, it’s allowing local governments to make those decisions about where the money can have the biggest impact in the communities,” Bronin said.

Newman, the house manager, said programs like Open Hearth are invaluable for people coming out of prison and transitioning back to non-incarcerated life. Take, for instance, the message he said people get from parole. It’s, "Get a job or you’re going back to jail.“

"If I knew how to do that before, I wouldn’t have been in jail to begin with,” Newman said. “So, you get into somewhere like here, with maybe someone like myself or other case managers who will actually make phone calls for you, who will actually say, 'You know what? ‘You’ve never taken a bus before, I’m going to show you how to do this. Okay, you don’t know how to fill out an application, we’re gonna show you. We’re going to get you an ID. Those are the things that, the services, how small they may seem, that’s what make a criminal be able to convert back to a normal life.”

And Newman said that, even though Open Hearth’s CDBG funding is a relatively small portion of its budget, when it comes to getting back to a normal life, every dollar matters.