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Federal Shutdown Hits Home In Boston Neighborhoods

The government shutdown has now dragged on for over a month, well past the prior record of just under three weeks, and the stalemate continues over border funding. In the meantime, impacted Bostonians are struggling with missed paychecks and preemptive worry about affording food and housing.

“I have never until now felt that my job was in jeopardy,” said Lauren Thompson, 57, a furloughed Treasury Department employee of 39 years, working for the federal government through every prior shutdown and weathering them all. “I love my job. This is a great place to work, but the other shutdowns were much different. I feel that we’re being used as leverage. I never felt that with other shutdowns.”

A board member at the Garrison-Trotter neighborhood association in Roxbury, Thompson is working with the civic group and the Holy Tabernacle Church in Dorchester to offer free groceries on Thursday to furloughed federal employees with government identification.

The shutdown’s impacts trickle into the least obvious places. Employees of shuttered departments cannot use their government emails, Thompson points out, which makes it difficult to organize or let each other now about available resources like the food bank. They need to rely on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, standard paper flyers, and groups like Blacks in Government to reach federal and state workers.

“It’s connecting,” she said. “It’s networking. Just, all of us are in the same situation, but we’re working towards a common goal, and the goal is to help our fellow employees.”

The U.S. Senate passed a bill in December that would have maintained government operations into February, but progress came to a halt when President Donald Trump demanded that $5.7 billion be included to fund construction of a wall along the country's southern border. Since then, bills have passed in the Democratic-controlled House to reopen the government without wall funding but have not gone to a vote in the Senate. Two test votes are expected to take place in the U.S. Senate on Thursday, a possible step toward reopening the government.

U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan said Tuesday that effects of the shutdown are felt most strongly at the Internal Revenue Service, the Food and Drug Administration and at airports, where many Transportation Security Administration workers are not receiving pay. She has met several times with affected employees.

"We're going to start feeling the constraints on our economy very quickly," Trahan said. "That is the pressure that Republicans in the Senate cannot avoid."

Anxiety is already spreading through neighborhoods, elected officials and residents say. State Rep. Russell Holmes and City Council President Andrea Campbell both said that their districts already struggle with food insecurity and housing insecurity.

“It’s been much more of the folks who are concerned about their livelihoods,” Holmes said.

The direct impacts have been sparse so far, he said, but people are calling him constantly and “proactively,” looking blankly ahead at looming deadlines for food and housing vouchers.

“The two biggest things I’ve heard, quite frankly, are food stamps —they’re glad they’re sending them out early in February but what happens in March — and Section 8,” he said. “What happens with heat? How do we make sure we get services? People literally just worried about, how do I live? The thing that’s most uncomfortable for me is that I don’t have a good answer for them.”

He can check in with Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley to pass along the residents’ concerns, Holmes said, and look closely at Gov. Baker’s proposals for extending state unemployment protections to federal workers.

One Mattapan resident and landlord checks in with Holmes frequently, worried about her tenant who depends on Section 8 vouchers for rent. Funding for the vouchers and SNAP, or food stamps, is secure through the next month.

She told the Reporter, requesting that her name be withheld so that her tenant does not become alarmed, that the uncertainty is “uncomfortable.”

“You just don’t know,” she said. “It’s not like you can put the person out. You try to help them out. Everybody struggles. You just hope this works itself out. It’s just crazy to watch this happen.”

Her friends and neighbors are equally concerned, the landlord of three said.

“Some of them are cutting back, cutting outings they may have taken their kids on. Some of them that have food stamps this month, they’re trying to ration it for next month, and live mindfully because they don’t know how long they have, maybe borrow money. They’re worried because they don’t know what to do. You only can wait and see and hope.”

Pressley and other federal legislators are pushing for bipartisan bills that do not fund the President’s desired border wall. In a statement about a bill she co-sponsored to guarantee back pay for contractors no protected by furlough, Pressley asked that "any final funding agreement includes retroactive compensation for the thousands of low-wage government contract service workers that have had their lives put on hold as a result of President Trump's obsession to fund a xenophobic hate wall."

State Sen. Nick Collins is among those pushing for supports for the Coast Guard, whose members are not being paid.

“Given that I represent the ports of Boston, my district spans the water, the harbor,” he said. “It’s a major concern given that we have international cargo coming in, we have LNG tankers coming to our ports, making sure the Coast Guard has adequate finding is a big concern.”

Other institutions are in the clear for longer. Federal financial aid, for instance, is funded through the end of Fiscal Year 2019, as are most research grants.

Federal housing loan programming has not yet lapsed, though in an ironic touch, Tom Callahan of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance said, “We’ve been trying to shut it down for 30 years. That’s a bit of an overstatement because we don’t want it shut down, but there are unique things in Massachusetts with the MH partnership and Mass Housing, much better options for home buyers.”

The federal standard is more lax, he explained, and may lead to prospective buyers taking out pricier loans because the process is faster. But the very homebuyer education courses that protect potential new homeowners depends on federal HUD grants that are already delayed by about 15 months.

HUD moves slowly, Maritza Crossen with the Citizens' Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA), explained.

“They were already behind this year,” she said. “We were set to get payments approved at end of year, and housing council agencies are working on the new year of grants, but were not paid on the grant year that end in September.”

For the agencies across New England CHAPA helps connect with HUD funding, “the strain is just the uncertainty of when their previous year’s funding is coming in or when. It’s not as much as a strain as employees going to work without being paid, but these are small organizations that help people who are buying their first home, help with foreclosure, homelessness.”

Groups as small as three members depend on these grants, which were expected to finally be sent along at the end of the year before the shutdown occurred.

Employees in unfunded security agencies like the FBI, the DEA, and Customs and Border Protection express ever sinking morale and uncertainty as their employees are asked to work through the shutdown without pay.

The operational impacts of this shutdown are immeasurable,” an FBI member of the Northeast Region said, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation Agents Association. Northeast FBI agents in a document released and updated in January described postponed indictments, loss of funding for confidential source payments, delayed investigations, and the insecurity of missing paychecks for the agents’ families.

State Rep. Dan Hunt was among those rallying at the State House on behalf of federal workers at Logan Airport who have now missed at least one paycheck. In a conversation with the Reporter on Tuesday, Hunt said a friend who works for the TSA is doing increasingly stretched math to make ends meet “at least for this month.”

“So many of us that have great jobs and make good money still live paycheck to paycheck, so I worry about federal employees who aren’t making great money and have been furloughed,” he said. “With the Coast Guard and TSA and other agencies, I worry about the overall safety risks of having our first responders put their lives on the line and not paying them.”

One of the landmarks of his district, the JFK Presidential Museum and Library, has been shuttered since the shutdown began as the National Archives are not being funded.

Its full staff is out of work now, including 18 facilities management employees contracted through Dorchester-based Work Inc. With the exception of two workers who are on rotation just to keep the heat on, “a lot of them right now, the ones that have it, are using vacation and sick time to cover missed days that they are able to,” said Work Inc. spokeswoman Andrea Mitsch. “The others are waiting for or going to unemployment.”
One worker said they have enough for January bills, but “doesn’t know what to do after January.”

Work Inc. helps connect employees with mental or physical disabilities to jobs, making them even more vulnerable to lost hours.

“The unknown and the uncertainty, and the financial strain on so many folks picking and choosing what they can pay for,” Mitsch said. “Do I pay my heat this month or do I get meds? Do I go to the grocery store and get food or do I pay my rent? They might not have a safety net like others do, and because they have significant disabilities, many of them don’t have the capacity to go out and find a job in this environment.”

The JFK Library Foundation gave each employee a $50 gift card to at least help a bit, Mitsch said, and “it’s overwhelming the thanks that we’ve gotten just for the $50 gift card. Some of the folks that we work with, they not only rely on the income, rely on food stamps, housing vouchers. Their entire life is being impacted.”

Hunt filed a bill with fellow representative David Biele, whose district also covers parts of Columbia Point, that would mandate that state contracts at least take a look at hiring folks with mental and physical disabilities. They hope this might benefit employees like those at Work Inc.
Next door, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate is in slightly better straits.

“Because the Institute is an independent nonprofit organization, our operations are not affected by the partial government shutdown,” said spokesman Miles Halpine. “That means we’re open and able to offer all of our daily programs on an ongoing basis. This week… we are announcing free admission for all furloughed federal workers affected by the shutdown. All that’s required to take advantage of this is for federal workers visiting the Institute to show their federal identification. We're open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.”

National Parks like Dorchester Heights and Thomas Park are not being maintained by the shut-down Parks Service, leaving it to good Samaritans and city employees to clean up.

Speaking of national parks, one of the expected panelists at a Friends of the Public Garden event last week about the 54th Massachusetts Robert Gould Shaw Memorial could not participate as a furloughed Parks employee.

“This is having ripple effect not just with respect to our workers, but important conversations around how to move that work forward,” Councillor Campbell said.

An additional layer, she said, is bringing home the knowledge that many residents live paycheck to paycheck and are not always guaranteed safety nets like 401(k)s or sick leave.

“What role can we play in pushing, not just government, but private employers to support our families who work extremely hard but need these supports in order to survive?” she asked. “This brings these conversations back to the forefront. What do their benefit packages look like, when they’re sick, when something like this happens?”

The reach of the shutdown’s impacts stretches across the country, Thompson said, into households across the political spectrum.

“I think what’s disheartening to me is all the stories that we hear, every day, across the country,” Thompson said. “People choosing between insulin and food, medication and food, and making choices between priorities. How do you do that? food for your children and food for yourself?”

Thompson hopes people will be more compassionate, more understanding, to federal employees, after seeing the precarious position their chosen profession puts them in.

“For many years, we have been regarded as dispensable,” she said. “[People say] we get paid too much, we get too many benefits, that we don’t do enough work. I hope that we’re appreciated when this is over. Maybe this is what it takes sometimes, to hear people’s stories.”

This article originally appeared in The Dorchester Reporter.

Jennifer Smith can be reached at jennifer.smith@dotnews.com, or follow her on Twitter at @JennDotSmith

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