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Reform vs. The Welfare "State of Mind"

May 13, 1998
By: Joe Stange
State Capital Bureau

PART 2 OF 3: ON THE FRONT LINES OF WELFARE REFORM

JEFFERSON CITY - Near the main entrance, on a cork bulletin board crowded with city bus schedules and "Help Wanted" notices, a sign is posted for all Salvation Army Harbor House residents to see:

"Good morning! This is God. I will be handling all your problems today and I won't need your help. So relax and have a nice day!"

However, the sign doesn't mesh with the message that Carol Pastoret, a case manager at Columbia's Harbor House, tries to get across to the residents there: First you have to help yourself.

"We encourage these folks to eventually work, because that's the only way they'll ever get out of here," Pastoret said.

The Harbor House is built around an simple enough idea. As Pastoret points out, "We actually are here for people who truly don't have a bed at night."

But in light of the main purpose of welfare reform, to move people from welfare to work, the house takes on new importance for many of its residents: It becomes a place of transition. That puts Carol Pastoret on the front lines, in the trenches of welfare reform.

Federal reform established a deadline for able recipients to leave welfare for the workplace before payments cease. Pastoret said she has seen many women want to deny the presence of that ticking clock.

"What I find is most of the folks, most of the women on the deadline want to push the deadline," she said. "You can't seem to get the women to understand that there is a deadline."

Pastoret said the denial usually stems from their home environments while they were very young.

"That's all they know from growing up. Their moms were welfare moms."

She said the problems with the male residents are usually of an altogether different nature, as she estimates 80 percent of them have had substance abuse problems. She further described the typical male resident as white, between 25 and 45 years old, with no family support system. She said most hail from a bad childhood.

"You put it all together, and they don't understand responsibility," she said. "We become their family and their support system."

One example of the House's function as a support system: They are strongly discouraged from any drug or alcohol abuse. If residents are caught with drugs or alcohol, they can be terminated and another will come to stay in there place.

At any given time, the House provides a roof for an average of 40 residents, but can hold a maximum of 50. Most residents stay for about two to three weeks before moving on -- not always into jobs.

"These people seem to be transient by nature," Pastoret said. "They just don't seem to want to settle down in one place."

Cynthia Smith, a caseworker at the Salvation Army's Columbia food pantry, said that many of the poor she has spoken with "really have tunnel vision," and only look at what they need on a day-to-day basis.

Their observations, if valid, present a problem for reform. The government, with the support of enough people, can take welfare checks away if a recipient doesn't go to work. It can lower food stamps, or make less people eligible for them.

But it may not be able to legislate state of mind.

Said Pastoret: "The nature of homelessness is that these people do not want rules and regulations."