Disabled protest Calif. budget cuts

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BERKELEY, Calif. - For the second time in five weeks, dozens of men and women with disabilities and their caregivers camped out for days on a grassy traffic island here last week, protesting Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to slash funding for human services, including the program they say enables them to live at home instead of in nursing homes.

They called their little cluster of tents "Arnieville," after the Hooverville shantytowns built by homeless people during the Great Depression.

"We're here because we're sick and tired of a budget process that treats us as expendable," spokesperson Jean Stewart told a June 24 press conference. "Every year our governor and legislators look for items they can cut from the budget, and every year they single out In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) and Medi-Cal (California's Medicaid) along with other programs that elderly, disabled and poor people depend on, like CalWORKS, Adult Day Health Care and mental health rehab."

California faces a $19.1 billion budget gap. It's the only state requiring a two-thirds supermajority both to pass a budget and to raise taxes. Democrats in the legislature fall short of that level, and virtually all Republican legislators have signed a no-new-taxes pledge. As in most recent years, the legislature missed the June 15 budget deadline to pass a budget, and negotiations will likely drag on for many weeks.

Stewart, who uses a wheelchair, spoke of the "terror" she and other users of IHSS services, and the caregivers whose jobs are also at stake, experience every year as the budget process wears on. Calling IHSS "a model program," she described its role in helping low income seniors and the disabled with essential daily activities so they can remain independent in their own homes.

She and others have formed Communities United in Defense of Olmstead (CUIDO), which takes its name from a U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that unnecessary segregation of people with disabilities in institutions constitutes discrimination based on disability.

Also speaking was Berkeley City Councilmember Max Anderson, who told the crowd the state's budget troubles stem from "the way the system is organized. There's not an effort to go to where the money is and get the money to provide resources for those who need them."

Anderson called the cuts and the state's constant raiding of county and city budgets "an unconscionable attack on the quality of life and the very existence of life for many people."

The Berkeley City Council last week resolved to write to Gov. Schwarzenegger strongly opposing the cuts. Organizers called on other city councils to do likewise.

Arnieville protesters also targeted the governor's proposal for unannounced visits to IHSS recipients' homes, supposedly to counter fraud, which IHSS supporters say is virtually nonexistent.

In a conversation after the press conference, Stephanie Miyashiro, a wheelchair user who says her income is "just a bit too high" to qualify for IHSS, said independent movements run by people with disabilities are vital to uphold their civil rights and ability to live independently. "We outnumber the billionaires," she said. "If we all get together we can take our state back."

Sheela Gunn-Cushman, blind herself, teaches other blind people how to use computers. A registered Republican, she disagrees with the governor's approach. She also has mixed feelings about the Afghanistan war and its cost: "We need to focus on the home front - I think we should solve our problems and not think we can solve everyone else's."

IHSS now serves over 450,000 Californians. The livelihoods of some 350,000 caregivers are also at stake. Organizers warned of the devastating economic consequences of forcing hundreds of thousands into far more costly nursing homes which may not have capacity for them, while further boosting the state's already soaring 12.4 percent unemployment.

Photo: Marilyn Bechtel