By STEVEN R. HURST, Associated Press
BALTIMORE (AP) — Antonio Hammond is the $18,000 man.
He's a success story for Catholic Charities of Baltimore, one of a multitude of organizations trying to haul people out of poverty in this Maryland port city where one of four residents is considered poor by U.S. government standards.
Hammond says he ended up in Baltimore three years ago, addicted to crack cocaine and snorting heroin, living in abandoned buildings where "the rats were fierce," and financing his addiction by breaking into cars and stealing copper pipes out of crumbing structures. Eighteen months after finding his way to Catholic Charities via a rehabilitation center, the 49-year-old Philadelphia native is back in the work force, clean of drugs, earning $13 an hour cleaning laboratories for the Biotech Institute of Maryland and paying taxes.
Catholic Charities, which runs a number of federally funded programs, spent $18,000 from privately donated funds to turn around Hammond's life through the organization's Christopher's Place program which provides housing and support services to recovering addicts and former prisoners.
Such success stories are in danger as $85 billion in federal government spending cuts begin squeezing services for the poor nationwide. The cuts started kicking in automatically on March 1 after feuding Democrats and Republicans failed to agree on a better plan for addressing the national deficit. They are hitting at a time of spiking poverty as the U.S. slowly climbs out of the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
"All I wanted to do was get high," Hammond said. "I didn't even know any more how to eat or clean myself."
Now he lives with two other men in housing subsidized by the charity, got his driver's license and bought a car. What he marvels at the most is that he has been accepted after a 20-year absence by some of his nine children. That's the best part, he said. "At least I know now they might not hate me."
The U.S. Census Bureau puts the number of Americans in poverty at levels not seen since the mid-1960s when President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the federal government's so-called War on Poverty. As President Barack Obama began his second term in January, nearly 50 million Americans — one in six — were living below the income line that defines poverty, according to the bureau. A family of four that earns less than $23,021 a year is listed as living in poverty. The bureau said 20 percent of the country's children are poor.
Although it is far from the country's poorest city, Baltimore's poverty rate far outstrips the national average of one in six.
Catholic Charities of Baltimore is a conduit for state and federal money for programs designed to help the poor. The charity plays a major role in administering Head Start, a federal program that provides educational services for low-income pre-school children and frees single mothers to find work without the huge expense of childcare.
The spending cuts, known as the sequester, are going to hit Head Start especially hard.
"Before the sequester only half of the need was being met. Now, after the cuts fully take effect, there will be 900 children already in the program who won't be able to take part," said William McCarthy, executive director of Catholic Charities.
There is no question the national belt-tightening "will deepen and increase poverty," said McCarthy, citing the cuts in long-term care for poor seniors including assisted living and nursing care, and fewer low-income housing spaces, among other ripple effects.
Under the spending cuts, Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said his agency faces a $25 million shortfall in funds to help poor people with housing. There are 35,000 people on the waiting list. He also lamented cuts that will hamper the city's efforts to clean up or demolish blighted neighborhoods. Baltimore has 15,000 vacant and abandoned structures as a result of a steep population decline over the past half century.
"It's very, very disheartening. We take a couple of steps forward and then fall back at least one. The private sector isn't going to fix these neighborhoods. I view these things as investments, not expenditures. These things are an investment in the future that bring returns many times over," he said.