The California Legislature is not ordinarily a place people go in search of miracles, and yet that is exactly what lawmakers delivered in June: a budget that would balance as soon as the state Franchise Tax Board, California's stalled economy and, presumably, the tooth fairy produced a windfall of $4 billion.
Now that tax revenues have fallen far short, trigger cuts that the Legislature built into the budget are pointed at the rest of us like a loaded gun. And the triggers are about to be pulled.
Standing in the line of fire is Charles Gonzales, 84, who survived his enlistment in the Navy at 17 to fight in World War II but now could be among the casualties as California attempts to balance its books on the stooped shoulders of the elderly. His story is the subject of this chapter in "Bleak House," the revival of our series about how California's budget battle affects us all.
The $2 billion in proposed trigger cuts have thrown programs throughout the state into chaos, even ones that receive different types of government funding, like the Live Oak Senior Day Care Center in Willow Glen, where Gonzales spends five days a week -- dancing in silence, coloring and playing bingo. A decade of Alzheimer's disease has rendered him almost mute, and most of the time he appears bewildered about where he is. His daughter, Julia Van Leemput, says the one place sure to bring a light back to his eyes is Live Oak.
"This place has been my lifesaver," Van Leemput says, her eyes welling with tears as she gazes at her father.
Van Leemput is able to work at the family's sporting goods store in San Jose because the Department of Veterans Affairs pays for her father to go to Live Oak three days a week, and the center charges only what she can afford to pay for the other two days.
"There have been months when we haven't been able to pay, and they're like, 'That's OK. It's not about the money,' " she says. "But of course it is. They've got a business to run, and they need the funds."
Live Oak's survival is threatened by Gov. Jerry Brown's attempt to realign the state budget. Critics say the governor is effectively picking the pockets of cities like San Jose, which last year gave $72,000 to the day care center and next year may be forced to reduce that to zero. Most of that money came from federal Community Development Block Grants, but because of the state budget mess, the city's funding priorities have shifted.
And more seniors may rely on places like Live Oak because the trigger cuts are aiming at the state's In-Home Supportive Services, a Medi-Cal funded program slated for a 20 percent reduction of hours.
The various cuts illustrate how, in the complex budget process, everything affects everything else. "They're making decisions that are going to have catastrophic consequences if they don't look at the whole picture," says Live Oak executive director Colleen Hudgen.
With all the talk of cutbacks and closures -- Live Oak was forced to shut its downtown center in September -- grown children like Van Leemput who have taken in ailing parents now face a grim choice: quit working to become full-time caregivers, or put an aged and infirm parent in a nursing home. Hudgen says of Van Leemput's dilemma, "She's terrified that she's not going to have someplace to bring her dad five days a week."
Three years ago, Van Leemput took over her father's care, staying at her parents' home in Oakland from Sunday to Wednesday, before returning home exhausted. She and her husband then added on a bedroom to their house and moved her father to San Jose. Her 3-year-old grandson became her dad's new best friend. "They understand each other," she says.
When she and her father arrive at the bright, airy house that once was the home of Willow Glen's only mayor, Van Leemput immediately takes a cup of fruit loaded with her dad's medications from a member of the center's staff and spoon feeds it to him. He stares straight ahead, silently chewing. But later, he will be on his feet, dancing with staffers. Every so often, his eyes dance, too.
Because it doesn't deal directly with its clients' health problems, Live Oak receives no funding from the state's Adult Day Health Care program, which Brown attempted to kill before a court-ordered settlement this month saved it. But funding for places like Live Oak has become such a crazy quilt of foundation grants, fundraising and fees that gutting the state health care program would have forced many seniors into nursing homes -- where fees run roughly $4,000 more a month.
Live Oak receives funding from 10 cities through the Community Development Block Grant program but also looks to the Senior Nutrition Program and the Council on Aging to keep its doors open. "It's totally complicated," Hudgen says. "We're able to do this on a shoestring because of all the little pieces we get."
The pieces are getting smaller, but the need is not going away.
"You can't chop society into pieces, and say, 'Only this group really needs and deserves it,'" Hudgen says. "Seniors really need it. They built this valley, worked hard, did the right things. Now they're frail or sick, and they can't advocate for themselves. But they don't need to be in a nursing home."
Van Leemput promised her dad she would never let that happen to him. "He took care of us," she says, "and now we've got to take care of him. All of us are going to be here one day."
Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004.
To make a donation or become a volunteer at Live Oak Adult Day Services, call 408-971-9363 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.