Shutdown realities come into focus in Beaumont, SE Texas
If the federal government doesn’t reopen by the end of February, many hundreds of Beaumont people could begin to be forced out of their homes.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development loaded the system with enough money to pay February’s rent for the 1,728 area residents living in government-subsidized housing, Beaumont Housing Authority Executive Director Allison Landrum said.
But starting in March, as things now stand, the organization won’t have the money to pay rent or many employees’ salaries.
“Hopefully landlords will be considerate of the government shutdown, but our hands are tied,” Landrum said. “Landlords have a right to enforce their lease, which says all rent has to be paid.”
The Housing Authority is one of several federal agencies across Southeast Texas watching developments in Washington, D.C., with concern. Corrections officers at the Beaumont Federal Correctional Complex and staff at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Texas will miss their first paycheck this week.
Families that depend on free and reduced-price school lunches are OK for the time being, although funding may shift from the federal to state level if the shutdown extends beyond February.
Landrum, who’s seen many government shut downs in her time with the Housing Authority, said she’s never gotten to the point where rents can’t be paid. She’s optimistic the government will reopen before the situation grows more dire.
But she said this shutdown feels different than others before.
“Past shutdowns, I’ve always felt there could be a compromise,” Landrum said. “For some reason this time does feel different because both sides are so entrenched in their belief in what needs to happen. I’m just hoping both sides can come to the table and compromise so it doesn’t impact the clients we serve that are desperately in need of the housing assistance.”
“There’s a much bigger picture the government needs to be looking at,” she finished.
The government partially shut down some three weeks ago after Republicans, Democrats and President Donald Trump were unable to come to an agreement on a budget. Trump has said he won’t sign a budget that doesn’t include more than $5 billion for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which he admits could take months or even years.
When she heard about the shutdown, Port Arthur ISD Director of Child Nutrition Erika Sampson grew concerned about the impact on lunch programs for low-income students. She turned to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for assurance.
According to the website, the department will continue child nutrition programs, such as school lunches and breakfasts, adult care feeding, summer food service and special milk will into February. And the Texas Department of Agriculture has funds to keep the continue programs running through April if necessary.
Only 62 percent of the local U.S. Attorney’s Office staff is working, but court is still being held, public information officer Davilyn Walston said.
“We’re shut down but we aren’t really shut down because we are all still working anyways,” she said. “We aren’t getting paid. It’s frustrating.”
At the federal prison, the lack of pay is dangerous, said corrections officer and union representative Christopher Boss.
“Staff is required to stay on point and have their wits about them,” he said. “If people are worried about their financial status and not focused — that’s when people get hurt.”
Boss said paying employees isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue, instead one that all Americans should care about.
Media reports across the nation have recently told of federal employees who have taken to other part-time side gigs to make money during the shutdown. That’s not an option for corrections officers, Boss said.
They’re one of the only lines of defense between inmates at the maximum-security prison and residents of Southeast Texas.
“If you don’t have law enforcement, what do you have?” he said. “At one point the president talked about months or years. That’s not even remotely feasible. We can’t have people leaving their jobs here. It gets extremely dangerous extremely quickly.”
Many of the staff members are single parents, he said, and corrections officers are already some of the lowest-paid federal employees. At some point, he said, something has to give.
Boss recently sent out information to workers about how to apply for unemployment, something he called disconcerting.
“We swore oaths to protect the public but we need Southeast Texas and federal lawmakers to support us,” he said. “The government needs to stop using federal employees as pawns.”
Reporter Erica Apodaca contributed to this report.