By Geoff Goldfeder
New Orleans Office of Family Services
January 25th, 2019, is a date that will be remembered for many years to come. This historic Friday marked the end of the longest government shutdown in American history. As President Donald Trump fought with Democrats in the House and Senate over border wall funding, 800,000 federal workers across the nation spent 35 protracted days not knowing when their next paycheck would come. Little did the rest of the nation know, in the city of New Orleans, thousands of families were at risk of becoming homeless.
“Part of doing this sort of work, you have to be ready to shoulder the burdens of these families. In a way, their problems really become your own problems as well” said social worker Ryan Brennan, a 23 year old Tulane grad. “Can we take this to the porch?”.
As we sat on the front porch of Ryan’s modest uptown rental home, the sun glistened on his scalp, revealing a receding hairline. His tired eyes and pale skin made him appear many years beyond his age, like an old soul trapped in a young body. Although his experience as a New Orleans social worker was limited, his face told me he had been doing this kind of work for many years. As he sat on his rocking chair, tilting back and forth, he pulled out a pack of he lit up a cigarette. Ryan held firmly on to his Marlboro Red, taking long drags, as if he wanted to smoke the daily stress of his job away with each puff. Although many aspects of Ryan’s work keep him up at night, nothing brings him more anxiety than the thought of another government shutdown.
Ryan’s work mainly revolves around helping kids with frustration management issues through home, community and school based interventions. Ryan coaches his kids with tools and strategies they can use to better manage their behaviors. In order to qualify for social services, one must be a recipient of Medicaid, meaning all of Ryan’s clients are impoverished, with many being minorities.
“A lot of families we work with are on some form of rent assistance which typically is handled and funded by government agencies,” said Ryan. Thousands of impoverished families across the city, who rely on rent assistance to remain in their homes, lost access to these valuable funds when the government shutdown on December 22nd. For families like these that rely on supplemental services on a daily basis, the government shutdown was undeniably momentous. “Many of my clients’ families contacted me around Christmastime, asking for places they could go to receive rent assistance. I was referring these people to various resources that normally they would be able to use, but unfortunately they did not have the funds to give out due to the shutdown. In addition to all the stress these families are already experiencing given their difficult socio-economic circumstance, these people were now facing potential eviction from their homes.”
With government agencies closed down, struggling families no longer had access to the funds they absolutely needed. Ryan began to refer his clients to other subsidizing organizations, such as private Catholic charity organizations across the city. But as government resources ran low, demand for assistance from charity organizations became high. With so many looking for rent assistance from private charities, a great strain was placed on these organizations, which did not possess the capacity or resources to support everyone relying on them. “Our office even had to empty its emergency fund to help subsidize one family during the shutdown. Had our office not stepped in, eviction could’ve been a real possibility.”
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the whole ordeal was the general apathy from the city and media about the way in which the government shutdown impacted New Orleans’ most disenfranchised communities. The majority of local media attention revolving around the government shutdown seemed to focus around slowdowns at Louis Armstrong International Airport due to a lack of available TSA agents. It appeared as though the city seemed to prioritize the shutdown’s threat to its own personal convenience over the immense threat it posed to minorities and the poor. There’s a certain irony to the fact that the plight of the most disenfranchised communities in the city are being ignored when in fact they are the ones hit hardest by the shutdown.
While I was bewildered by the media’s apathy, Ryan remained unsurprised. “I think that indifference from the community comes with being disenfranchised. Unfortunately, this population of individuals often get overlooked in this sort of thing,” Ryan told me. “Reporting on the inconvenience of everything, now don’t get me wrong, that’s still a big deal. But meanwhile, a large population of the city is facing a life altering situation in which they might lose their homes. But is this anything new? No, I don’t think so.”
Since the shutdown ended, things seem to have gone back to normal for Ryan: or as close to normal as possible in Ryan’s world. Many of Ryan’s families were able to avoid eviction as government checks began to come back in. However, with the possibility of a second shutdown approaching on February 15th, impoverished families across New Orleans remain on edge. “I know that the anxiety of another shutdown is definitely on these family’s minds on a daily basis,” said Ryan, in a sincere yet solemn tone. “Seeing how it played out last time, I’d be very concerned to see it happen again.” To the wealthy bureaucrats in Washington, the concept of another shutdown may just seem like a game of politics. But to the multitude of struggling families in New Orleans, it’s a game in which the outcome can have significant impacts on their lives.