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Herbert Ellis, right, applies for rental assistance Friday through the San Juan Partnership, one of the nonprofit organizations awarded funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, while housing assistance supervisor Lynn Love stands behind him.
Editor's note: The following story continues an ongoing series investigating the use of federal stimulus funds on the local level.


FARMINGTON — The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has awarded more than $1.4 million to San Juan County nonprofit organizations providing special service programs to assist residents affected by the economic downturn.

And, unlike many local and state government agencies, county nonprofit groups already have begun putting the stimulus dollars to work.

The $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was enacted in February 2009 to supply new money in the nation's cities, schools, hospitals and small businesses with the hope of creating or saving at least 3.5 million jobs across the United States.

Critics of the stimulus program have questioned the use of money for community social services when the need for economic development is so great. San Juan County unemployment rates remain the highest experienced in decades nearly a year after the stimulus bill was signed into law.

But creating jobs and helping people in need isn't mutually exclusive, said Andrew Lenderman, a spokesman with the New Mexico Office of Recovery and Reinvestment.

"I think that's a good example of a win-win situation," Lenderman said of the investment in social programs. "The recovery act is clearly designed to create and save jobs, and bolster the safety net by people impacted by the recession, people that need help the most. I think the bottom line is an infusion of $3.3 billion is clearly positive for New Mexico's economy."


Nonprofit program directors agree that these stimulus awards are not only helping community members in need, they're also putting some back to work.



Preventing homelessness
Much of the federal stimulus awarded to area nonprofits was committed for housing assistance, ensuring that a lost job doesn't also mean a lost home.

The San Juan Partnership with $682,000 in stimulus money has established a program that provides rent payments and utility expenses for residents who could face eviction during the hard economic times.

"It provides funding to people who are at risk of becoming imminently homeless. They have the eviction notice in their hand," said Pamela Drake, executive director of the nonprofit San Juan Partnership.

Those in need, often a result of lost shifts at work, sit down with a specialist to not only determine what they need, but to improve relationships with a landlord and identify what can be done in the future to prevent a similar financial problem.

Since the program began offering rental housing assistance with stimulus dollars in November, San Juan Partnership has provided financial help to more than 175 families in San Juan County to help residents retain their homes.

"Maybe we assist them in three months' rent, give them assistance in whatever they're lacking," Housing Program Director Lynn Love said. "That entails helping them over this economic crisis to where if hours pick up in three months, then they're able to pick up and carry on and become self-sufficient."

The program also works to identify homeless individuals or residents of community shelters who could be placed in a rental apartment to help get those in need on their feet and better able to seek employment.

"I wouldn't say that this money is creating jobs, but what it's doing is providing people a secure environment so that they are better able to apply for jobs," Drake said. "In the long run it helps them get jobs if they have a place over their head, and can clean up and go do interviews."

San Juan Partnership has had a direct role in job creation, as well. A full-time and a part-time employee were hired with the stimulus award to implement the homelessness prevention program, Drake said.



Building houses
Stimulus money also is at work to address the community housing market for families eligible to invest in their own homes, but unable to afford a house at the market rate, which averages above $225,000 in Farmington.

The nonprofit group Economic Council Helping Others, or ECHO, Inc., received nearly $420,000 in stimulus dollars to develop and sustain an affordable housing program in San Juan County.

ECHO plans to build a total of 12 new houses by July, which will put more than 60 individual construction workers on the job for at least four months per home, ECHO Executive Director Sara Kaynor said.

One job at ECHO was on track to be cut from the budget if the stimulus award was not made, Kaynor said.

"Had we not been able to retain the funds, ECHO could not have sustained this program any longer," she said.

Since money was received through the stimulus program in July 2009, four new full-time staff members were hired to operate the program. Already at work, the ECHO housing program is completing construction of four newly built houses in Aztec scheduled to be occupied by the end of January.

The housing construction investment also is estimated to multiply itself into a local economic impact exceeding $5 million.

"In San Juan County, the construction industry is in pretty bad shape. We are putting a huge number of sub(contractors) back to work," Kaynor said. "That would not happen except as a result of the stimulus funds."

But the money was not awarded to ECHO to underwrite the construction industry. With the help of a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development home loans program, ECHO is putting eligible San Juan County residents in homes purchased for around $160,000. The affordable home development and sales also returns funding back to ECHO to be reinvested in future housing developments, the director said, ensuring the housing development will continue years after the stimulus dollars expire.

"The need is huge with what's happened in the economy," Kaynor said. "That (program) has a huge benefit to the entire community, not only the families but the subcontractors and that multiplier effect that goes through the economy. And those aren't insignificant dollars."



Helping Navajo help themselves
Receiving government funding is becoming more competitive because a majority of government programs are allocated through a competitive grant application process rather than entitlement awards, according to the Farmington nonprofit group The Grant Experts.

The group was awarded nearly $250,000 in stimulus funds to teach Navajo leaders how to take advantage of the grant process by independently identifying, applying and receiving money through applicable future grant programs.

The Grant Experts will conduct specialized training sessions across the Navajo Nation to ensure members from each chapter have an opportunity to apply for their own grants tailored to their communities' individualized needs.

"Our intention is after we get them to this point where they're comfortable writing these grants (applications) on their own, they'll be able to get these grants, have them awarded to them, and they'll be able to create jobs and infrastructure for their own," said Cindi Hansen, a Grant Experts writer directing the Navajo instruction program.

Workshops held with Navajo leaders beginning in February will help ensure applications for new funding are more competitive, Hansen said.

Navajo leaders in the past were challenged by the government grant application process because it's full of government jargon and acronyms that often confuse anyone unfamiliar with government work, she said.

"They can improve their way of life right now. They can build new housing projects on their own; they can have more infrastructure, more utilities going out to the Navajo people," Hansen said. "It's out there, they just don't know how to get it. ... We're going to educate them where they can start doing it themselves."

Direct job creation caused by the stimulus award will mean at least two new full-time jobs will be created in Farmington by The Grant Experts, Hansen said. The positions likely will be filled by early summer to help organize and implement the training session to be held across the reservation, she said.



Empowering victims
Tough economic times often can result in increased incidents of domestic violence. Since the local onset of the recession, beds at both Family Crisis Center victims' shelters have remained full with no sign of slowing, said Alma Lorenz, development director for the nonprofit organization.

Hoping to help battered women receive the job-finding skills needed to be hired and retain work independent of a potentially abusive partner, the nonprofit Family Crisis Center received at least $10,000 in stimulus funds to pay a portion of the salary for an employment coach, Lorenz said.

"Some of our victims of domestic violence have not ever been allowed to work or hold a job, and they're forced with needing to support themselves to stay out of an abusive situation," Lorenz said. "Our job coach helps them get those skills to help them learn how to dress, make a resume and interview."

The job coach already is at work helping victims of domestic violence at the shelter.

"Right now she's been kind of networking to see what she can do to help some of our folks get jobs with the Census. Even though that's just a temporary thing, that's something to help."

For those who have jobs, the job coach works with employers to ensure family problems don't put a victim's job at risk.

But the money awarded through the stimulus does not cover the whole cost of a job trainer. Grants from other organizations are being combined to pay the expert's full salary and hopefully retain the position beyond the stimulus program, Lorenz said.

"It contributes and it helps, but you have to have much more than that," Lorenz said of the stimulus funds. "But it did spur us to think with the situation that our clients are already in, and we're seeing more and more with the economy suffering, it spurred our thinking to go ahead and apply for that."



Helping children
Developmentally disabled children require specialized care, a service the Presbyterian Medical Service Roundtree Children's Developmental Services organization has offered in San Juan County since 1982. Nearly $50,000 in stimulus funding was made available for the nonprofit group to extend those services.

In-home family care programs are provided by PMS for developmentally disabled children younger than 3, with the understanding that after age 3, children transition into school-based special education programs. But because school begins in August, some children are encouraged to transition into the school programs earlier than parents might prefer. The stimulus program allows PMS to continue providing the in-home family care through the beginning of the following school year.

Although the program doesn't affect a large number of children, it is an important resource for affected families, said Roundtree Administrator Jyl Adair.

"Their needs can be better met in their natural environment," Adair said. "Our program supports the families and the children; we provide an additional family support plan."

While some families prefer to transition to the structured school special education programs, some need a little more time working with the individualized care, Adair said. Prior to the stimulus, children over 3 were required to switch to school programs due to funding shortages.

The stimulus program simply give San Juan County families who don't qualify for federal Medicaid programs additional options, she said.

"Certainly if we're given the ability to keep kids and serve them and provide them the service they need, we think that's a positive thing," PMS Vice President Doug Smith said of the stimulus-funded program.


James Monteleone: