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By Ray Stern
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By Stephen Lemons
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At the same time--for want of $31,000 the same foundation will not give him--John Harris will be telling members of the Tohono O'odham nation that he can no longer help them with their legal troubles--be it protecting wives from abusive husbands or helping tenants stave off eviction.
Harris is director of Papago Legal Services, one of four legal-aid centers for Native Americans whose grant from the foundation for next year is being slashed.
Chronically underfunded, the centers' directors are seething that the foundation--which is charged with helping fund legal services for Arizona's poor--has all but written off Native American programs as it deals with a dwindling budget.
Native American legal-aid officials acknowledge that the Bar Foundation is strapped for grant money, but they are particularly outraged that they will soon be turning away needy clients while money is being spent for such things as having cops visit high schools.
"They're saying, 'Let's fund our pet projects first and then throw the crumbs into the abyss,'" Harris says. "They're cutting us, but they continue to commit money to expenditures that have nothing to do with providing help to poor people."
David Williams, the foundation's associate director, says the cuts in Native American programs were inevitable, given the foundation's budget problems. With a laundry list of programs begging for money, Williams says, the tribal programs simply aren't the neediest.
But Randolph Barnhouse, executive director of DNA-People's Legal Services--serving the Navajo, Hopi and Southern Paiute reservations--says the foundation does not appreciate just how desperate the Native American programs are, and how dependent they are on the foundation to supplement their budgets.
"They made what I think was a very political decision not to give any more money to Native Americans," says Barnhouse, whose service will receive no foundation funding next year. "It's amazing that in this day and age, you can just single out a group racially and not give them any money."
Set up by the state Supreme Court in 1985 to pay for the legal needs of the state's poorest residents, the foundation program receives the interest earned on funds--such as trust accounts--that lawyers hold for clients in banks. It is supposed to pass the money on to worthy legal programs, including groups that work with Native Americans, the elderly, immigrants, the disabled and others.
But as interest rates have plummeted over the past two years, the foundation has seen its available cash shrink dramatically. Last year, it hoped to pass out about $1.7 million, but failed to meet the goal. This year, that figure is expected to drop to about $670,000, Williams says.
"It's always a case of having a seven-foot table and a six-foot tablecloth," he says. "All of these programs are good. We're defunding programs for battered women. We're defunding programs for people in shelters. We're defunding tribal programs. For me it's been like attending the funeral of a friend every day of the week."
Faced with the crisis, Williams says, the foundation has decided to pursue a life-support strategy, trying to give everyone just enough money to keep their doors open, even if services have to be cut.
Because the Native American programs receive federal funds in addition to the foundation money, he says, they are being cut off.
"We have, in a time of scarcity, a funding program that says save the infrastructure for a brighter day, and it has the unintended effect of causing Native American programs to receive less money--in fact, no money in some cases," Williams says.
Both Barnhouse and Harris, however, say the foundation's priorities are skewed, and that hundreds of Native Americans will feel the pain.
The reservations' legal-aid groups handle thousands of nonglamorous but crucial legal cases each year, Harris says. When tribal members are cheated on contracts, can't get their disability payments, have problems with utility companies or become victims of consumer scams they do not understand, the legal-aid societies are the only places they have to turn.
"We will have to get used to turning these people away," Harris says.
Without the $31,000 in foundation funds he had hoped to have for next year, Harris says, he will have to fire one of the two attorneys who work with him to serve 18,000 people on the Tohono O'odham reservation.
That will cut off help for people like Florina Felix, a 24-year-old mother of six who turned to Harris' office this year after her ex-common-law husband left her and refused to pay child support.
Felix says she went on welfare after her husband left, but "we still couldn't make it to the end of the month" on the $500 per month she was receiving from the government.
A Papago Legal Services attorney sued for child support and won Felix $1,240 a month from her former husband, a U.S. Customs officer. She is now off welfare, but the payments have been sporadic. Felix says she will probably have to go back to court to enforce the judgment, but Harris says the office may no longer be able to help her.