Nic Ming was scrambling for nonexistent administrative work when a friend told her about the Kitchen of Champions culinary training program run by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul near downtown Oakland.
In her second week of on-the-job training Ming, 37, was learning to prepare pot stickers and beef stew. She's also working on a business plan and already looking ahead to the day when she can open her own restaurant.
But a compromise budget reached between the White House and Congress contains cuts to federal block grant money that helps pay for that program and dozens of others across Alameda County, cuts that could have a devastating impact on low-income people who depend on these programs to help them escape poverty and become self-sufficient.
Those cuts include a $942 million reduction to the Community Development Block Program and at least a $20 million reduction to the Community Services Block Program.
Oakland received more than $9.1 million in community development grant funds for fiscal year 2010-11. Michele Byrd, deputy director of housing and community development, said the money was awarded to 26 community-based organizations, which help provide decent housing for low-income seniors, disabled people and other residents, expand economic and educational opportunities for people earning low and moderate incomes, combat blight, and improve safety and community services. The federal budget represents a 16 percent cut, which means that Oakland will have some tough choices to make when it trims $1.4 million starting July 1.
The community services grant funding is awarded to programs that help lift people from poverty. The president's original budget called for the complete elimination of the program, said Sara Bedford, planning and policy manager for Oakland's Human Services department, but now it looks like the cuts are much less severe.
"For us, this is really a good sign," Bedford said. "But all those earlier proposed cuts are still on the table for next year, so we're encouraged but not relieved yet."
Oakland received $718,453 last year in community services grants, which enabled its partner organizations to serve nearly 13,000 individuals of very low incomes, said Estelle Clemons, manager of Oakland's Community Action Partnership.
This year, 10 organizations, including St. Vincent de Paul's culinary job training program, will share $719,412.
The organization enrolls 100 students in each 12-week culinary session, at a cost of $3,500 per student. Under the watchful instruction of acclaimed chef Elka Gilmore, sous chef Kim Blair and other professionals, the students chop, slice, saute, grill and bake about 1,000 hot lunches every day for the homeless and hungry who fill the dining hall. The chefs-in-training learn about food safety, preparation, planning, and along the way they gain self-confidence and skills to help them prepare résumés, interview and land a job.
Although the organization gets funding from other sources, losing the city's community services money would be a blow in its efforts to help people who have immense barriers to employment, such as people who are living in poverty, homeless and those who have served time in prison, said Katharine Miller, director of development and communications.
Of the students admitted to the program, 31 percent have not finished high school, 48 percent have a correctional history, 45 percent are homeless or lack a stable living situation and 53 percent are responsible for school-age children.
"This funding is incredibly important to us," Miller said. "It's not enough to just provide someone a hot lunch or clothes; ... this is an incredible, life-changing program."
Richard Gomez, 44, has faced many barriers in trying to find work. He served nearly nine years in federal prison on a drug charge and prospective employers balk when they see the conviction on his application, even though it happened more than a decade ago. He's been able to fall back on his skills as a concrete mason, but he believes that a culinary career would be a better long-term career choice, given his love of cooking.
"I'm looking forward to learning a lot from chef Elka Gilmore, she's a role model to me," he said. "She can yell and whatever, she drives a hard line, cracks the whip. She's earned my respect."
The uncertainty of what will happen with the federal budget has everyone on edge.
Hayward received 29 applications for block grant money this year, eight of them new, for a total of $2.4 million. City staff members were anticipating a 10 percent cut in funding, which would reduce available funds to $1.6 million, but noted that the final cuts could be deeper.
"This projection is based on the information that is available at this time. It is unlikely the allocation will be increased; however, it is possible that the allocation could be reduced by an even greater percentage," staff wrote in a report to the City Council.
Fremont receives approximately $1.6 million per year in federal community development funds. The city received $662,460 in community service grant funds for fiscal year 2010-11, which went to 21 different programs to provide low-income residents with health, housing, job training, education, training and counseling.
Suzanne Shenfil, Fremont's director of human services, said the bill before Congress would result in a 16.5 percent cut. The city should be able to fund everyone for the coming year because it saved stimulus funds, but the following year would be a different story.
"For next year I think everyone will be whole," she said. "But after that, the following year, if that is not addressed in some way, we will have to look at cutting services."
Alameda County received about $2.1 million in community development grant funds to aid residents in five small cities and unincorporated areas. The grants help support a variety of programs, including Meals on Wheels, 211.org, housing for low income residents, improvements to senior centers, support for seniors to stay in their own homes and job training, said Linda Gardner, the county's housing director.
"The funding creates jobs and helps support jobs," Gardner said.
Staff writers Chris Metinko, Matthew Artz and Eric Kurhi contributed to this story.