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Shelter sees budget shrink for fiscal year

CONYERS — The life of a battered woman is unstable. By the time she takes that crucial step toward independence, she must learn to adjust to many new circumstances, including a time of financial insecurity.

Project ReNeWal, the domestic violence shelter that serves Rockdale, Newton and Walton counties, endeavors to make that transition easier by being that stabilizing point between abuse and freedom.

But, much like the men, women and children that it serves, Project ReNeWal finds itself in the midst of its own financial transition.

Project ReNeWal suffered one major budgetary blow this year and narrowly avoided another.

Neither the Newton nor Walton counties' governments allocate money to Project ReNeWal, and in December, the Rockdale County Board of Commissioners voted to cut funding for all nonprofit agencies. As a result, the shelter must operate with $30,000 less this year than the $528,000 it received in fiscal year 2010-11.

Project ReNeWal employs seven full-time staff: an executive director, a case manager, a night shift manager, an outreach coordinator, a children's advocate, a crisis line manager and a transition coordinator. Other staff work on a part-time basis, including the administrative assistant, night and weekend staff, a cook and a maintenance person.

"We have cut a lot of expenses," said Vickie Stevenson, executive director of Project ReNeWal. We are looking at a budget this year of under $500,000. We have cut everywhere."

For example, Stevenson said, the hours of the part-time personnel have been reduced to save on costs. She said they have cut back on the number of dedicated telephone lines in the administrative offices, relying more and more on cell phones.

At the same time, the cost of providing services is rising. Stevenson said utility costs and food prices continue to climb.

The 20-bed shelter is near or at capacity much of the time, and for the past two months, the shelter has housed 27 people. As of this writing, 17 individuals were living there. Stevenson said 2,583 people came through the facility in 2010, a number that includes men, women and children. The shelter even has a kennel for pets.

"Imagine buying enough groceries to feed 27 people three meals a day for two months," Stevenson said.

Compounding the problem, she said, is the flagging economy. In the past, it typically took a woman not much more than about 30 days to be in a position to leave the shelter.

"In this economy, it's taking as much as two and a half months for these women to find jobs and housing and to get stabilized," Stevenson said.

At the same time Project ReNeWal has been adjusting to operating with a reduced budget, it came close to losing $90,000 it receives in state funding.

Stevenson said the $89,852 the shelter receives in state funding would have been replaced by an increase in federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families dollars it receives.

"So our bottom line would not have been affected, but it would have severely restricted who we could serve," she said.

Stevenson explained that the state money is largely unrestricted, but by boosting the TANF funds, Project ReNeWal would have been able to serve only women who had that particular type of assistance.

"We would not have been able to help women without TANF and we wouldn't have been able to help men," Stevenson said. "That was our biggest issue."

As word of this spread, center directors from around the state and advocates with the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence jumped into action calling their representatives and senators, urging them to oppose this proposed change to the state's budget.

Stevenson said she sat down with Gov. Nathan Deal and explained how this proposed change in the state's budget would restrict access to shelters.

In the end, budget writers put $1 million in state money for domestic violence shelters in the state's 2011-12 budget, in addition to $4.4 million in federal TANF money.

"It's not as much (unrestricted state money), but we can work with it," Stevenson said.

Project ReNeWal does not rely solely on public dollars. It receives money from private donations, as well as the United Way. Stevenson said last year the United Way of Metro Atlanta gave the shelter $23,000, the United Way in Newton County gave $20,000 to serve Newton County residents, and Walton County United Way gave $10,000 to be used for its residents seeking services at the shelter.

Stevenson said she will be pursuing a Grants to Green, so that the administrative offices and shelter can be audited for energy efficiency. She said she will then apply for another grant to help with the costs of making the suggested improvements, which should help with utility bills.

Project ReNeWal also holds fundraising events throughout the year.

Next month, it will host its annual golf tournament, its largest fundraiser of the year.

Stevenson said she is working to organize at least two more events before the end of the year to supplement the loss of Rockdale County funding.

For more information about Project ReNeWal, visit www.projectrenewalgeorgia.com or call 770-860-9770.