State lawmakers and Governor Rell have yet to agree on a budget that will resolve a growing multi-billion dollar deficit over the next two years. Because of the huge budget gap, many community organizations that help the disadvantaged are at risk of losing state funding. The Spanish Speaking Center of New Britain is one of them. And it's been struggling to stay open after some of its state aid was cut last year.
The Spanish Speaking Center operates inside a modest three-story house that's owned by St Mark’s Episcopal church right around the corner from Cedar Street. The center's Director, Mary Sanders meets me in the foyer. It’s full of people who wait to be seen by staff or by the Center’s many volunteers.
"This is Malacai, the longest volunteer we've had, Malacai was walking by and we said 'give us a hand with these turkeys', and he helped us and never left."
Sanders tells me nintey percent of the clients they serve are Hispanic residents of New Britain but the Center doesn't discriminate. Anyone who walks in the door gets assistance whether it’s translating government forms from Spanish to English or lately, helping people of all ages and backgrounds find a job.
"And we probably took care of between 50 and 100 families every month, where now we're closer to seven or eight hundred families a month. People, are you know, even if they're employed they're not making enough to make ends meet."
The food pantry at the Spanish Speaking Center is also a big draw. Carl Messerschmidt is the Pantry’s coordinator.
“An average day we get roughly around 30to 35 clients. Just two days ago, I had 73 people in here in three hours."
The Spanish Speaking Center used to run two food pantries, but its North Street location closed on Christmas Eve after its $100,000 grant from the Dept of Social Services was cut.
Sanders says the grant alone made up 40 percent of the Center’s operating budget. Then, they got more bad news. Gov Rell proposed a new competitive block grant process that would in effect, lump the Center with dozens of other groups clamoring for state dollars. The Governor's budget office says this would save the save several million dollars while allowing local input on how the funds should be distributed.
But Sanders says the changes leave the Center's future in limbo.
“This agency can’t close after 45 years, so many people using the services. But every day of the week we have people lined up from 8 o’clock in the morning till 5’o clock in the afternoon looking for services, and we’re open til 7 with the GED program three nights a week.”
“I want to improve my English. I understand a lot but I not write, not reading.”
Carlos Martinez is one of the students whose name is on a waiting list for a Spanish GED course that the Center offers on the second floor.
"If this place wasn’t here, where would you go to improve your English? Carlos: “I don’t know, I don’t have an idea.”
Martinez’s instructor says the Center is the only place in New Britain that offers the Spanish GED program. Its location is within walking distance for most of the city’s Hispanic residents who make up 30 percent of its population. Many live below the poverty line. Earlier this month, the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee voted to restore most of the money for the Hispanic Resource Development Fund. But Gov Rell and legislative leaders are still in budget negotiations so there's no guarantee the fund will remain a line item in the final budget.
Meanwhile, Mary Sanders, says she's applying for more aid from New Britain. She hopes federal stimulus money coming directly to cities will trickle down to the neediest of residents.