The partial shutdown of the federal government is now officially the longest one in history, at 26 days and counting. Communities and nonprofits are trying to step into the gap, but as “temporary” moves into “for the foreseeable future,” resources are increasingly stretched and reserve funds are dwindling.
National parks have been prominent in the news, especially after vandals foolishly destroyed some of the precious and unique trees in Joshua Tree National Park. (The park is now closed, though it is a major source of revenue for the small towns near its borders.) Many parks have closed their gates, but others, feeling an obligation to visitors and fortunate enough to have a dedicated community, have remained open with the bare minimum of services.
“It’s a community thing,” said Sarah Koenig, referring to the City of Boston’s efforts to clean up trash around monuments like Bunker Hill.
“We are seeing trash overflow, but we have amazing volunteers who are helping us to clean it,” said Toni Cooper, executive director of River Raisin National Battlefield Park Foundation in Michigan. “We have amazing backing from the city and county government. They help us out a lot.” Cooper says the park’s annual restaging of a battle from the War of 1812 will go on, thanks to volunteers and donations, but they have only enough to deal with the slower flow of visitors the park gets in the winter.
In Mississippi, the Friends of Vicksburg National Military Park and Campaign has been spending $2,000 a day to keep the park open; individuals in the community, whose economy relies heavily on the tourism brought in by the park, have donated about $18,000 to keep the doors open. The balance came from the nonprofit’s own funds, and Bess Averett, the Friends’ executive director, said she doesn’t anticipate getting it back.
“It would literally take an act of Congress to repay us. We do not anticipate that happening,” she said. The $6,000 the Friends had spent as of January 3rd represents nearly ten percent of the group’s reported net assets from 2017.
In Indian Country, which is one of the places hardest hit by the shutdown because the Bureau of Indian Affairs provides so many basic services, tribes have been making up some of the most crucial deficits with their own reserve funds. The Oneida tribe in Wisconsin is paying to keep their clinic going and keep their Head Start program running. Vice Chairman Brandon Yellowbird Stevens points out, “We’re fortunate we have the infrastructure and manpower here. A lot of tribes don’t have that.”
Other efforts have focused on supporting federal workers who are either furloughed or working without pay, who include the Coast Guard, federal aviation controllers and inspectors, airport security officers, and more.
Lawmakers in Massachusetts are considering using state funds to pay the Coast Guard. Food pantries are stocking extra and planning extended distribution especially for federal employees. Of course, some food banks, like the Central Texas Food Bank, rely on US Department of Agriculture support to run, so they are forced to balance the extra need against the uncertain duration of their limited supplies.
One food nonprofit employee said,
Farm Share views the effects of the prolonged partial government shutdown on the livelihood and wellbeing of federal employees in the same manner we do a natural disaster. Therefore, given the unknown duration of this event, we’re working diligently to plan and implement relief efforts aimed at helping those affected families and individuals throughout Florida.
In Washington DC, celebrity chef José Andrés has launched a relief kitchen for furloughed federal workers. He had already been providing hundreds of free sandwiches to federal workers from his restaurants, and estimates that he has spent more than $50,000 feeding furloughed employees. By launching the relief kitchen, he says he hopes to provide more assistance and send a message to the president.
“I’ve been in business 25 years because of federal workers,” he said. “The least I can do is be there for them when they need us.”
The relief kitchen is located on Pennsylvania Avenue, not far from the White House, and Andrés says he welcomes politicos who would like to volunteer—but only if they bring a buddy who has opposing political views.
NPQ has written often about how even a robust and well-funded civic sector is not a substitute for government-level aid and supportive community structure. We applaud those who are stepping up to help others in their communities as we wait for this absurd shutdown over border fencing to end.—Erin Rubin