The partial federal government shutdown is having an affect on many area residents. While there have been no furloughs reported at the Pine Bluff Arsenal, most of the 700 people employed by the National Center for Toxicological Research in Jefferson have been furloughed or partially furloughed, according to the Food and Drug Administration in Washington, D.C.
The partial shutdown, which began because Congress and President Donald Trump cannot agree on funding a border wall between Mexico and the United States, is affecting around 25 percent of federal government operations.
Meanwhile, hundreds of federal contracts for low-income Americans receiving housing assistance are expiring. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which operates a program called Project-Based Section-8, is unable to renew them and has instead directed private owners to dip into their reserves to cover shortfalls.
Two such apartment complexes in Pine Bluff — St. John Apartments and Southeast Apartments — house dozens of residents who are dependent upon the Section 8 housing vouchers to make their rent. A woman who answered the phone at Southeast Apartments on Monday asked not to be identified but said that several residents have been asking her what was going to happen.
She said that some of the rents are as high as $900. With the federal aid, tenants are only required to pay a certain percentage of their income toward rent, which makes it more affordable.
While the housing programs are government-based, many of the housing units are privately owned, meaning that if the full rent is not paid on time, tenants could be evicted. St. John and Southeast are owned be Millenial Housing in Cleveland, Ohio.
A message left for a media representative at Millenial was not returned on Monday.
James Word, who coordinates the housing program with the Area Agency on Aging for Southeast Arkansas, which operates Heritage Apartments on West 31st Avenue in Pine Bluff and many other complexes throughout this region of the state, said that there are emergency funds in place to help cover their residents’ rent.
At least for now.
“HUD requires us to have that on hand for circumstances such as this,” Word said, adding that 20 residents call Heritage home. But if the shutdown drags on, there are no guarantees about the future, he said.
Around the country, as many as 3.4 million people who rely on Section 8 are facing rent hikes or even the possibility of losing their homes if the shutdown lingers on, according to several national groups that keep track of assisted-housing statistics.
Some good news came Monday as the Arkansas Department of Human Services says it will distribute February’s food stamp benefits early as a result of the shutdown.
The agency says those eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, will begin receiving the February benefits on Jan. 17. DHS says this is not an additional payment and that recipients won’t receive another payment until March, if the program is funded by then.
Last week, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told states to issue the February benefits early.
Nearly 40 million Americans are enrolled in the program, including more than 150,000 households in Arkansas. DHS says about $40 million in SNAP assistance is distributed to eligible participants in Arkansas each month.
Throughout the shutdown, many Republicans, including Arkansas’ Fourth District Congressman Bruce Westerman, are doubling down on the need for border security.
“We have to ask ourselves, ‘How did we get into this situation?’ Why is a shutdown necessary to solve the border crisis?” Westerman said in an e-mailed statement.
“The answer is quite simply because Congress hasn’t acted. In 2018 alone, enough fentanyl was brought into the country to wipe out the entire U.S. population. Ten thousand children are brought across the border every year to be sold into sex trafficking. These are crises, and President Trump recognizes that. Democrats refuse to come to the table to negotiate on border funding, and instead have chosen to use 800,000 federal employees as pawns in a political game. I’ve been to the border, and I know that we need to do things to make it more secure. If we combine all the resources that we have, we can secure the border, stop illegal crossings, and end this shutdown once and for all.”