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There’s been lots of press about Congress cutting off funds to ACORN, but that money is so not the issue. Forgoing 53 million dollars over fifteen years is not going to break ACORN. What is hurting them is that local charitable organizations fear becoming radioactive if they give ACORN funds. Those charities are cautious about being tarred unjustly, though they may know very well how much good ACORN does in the community.

Some of them have had close ties with ACORN for years. For instance, the St. Vincent de Paul church runs a charity that dispenses money to help low income people, the disabled, and the elderly with clean up, painting, even some lawn mowing. ACORN, through its network of members, finds the folk who need and deserve these services and puts them in touch with St. Vincent de Paul. If that kind of cooperation stalls or if charities like the United Way cancel contributions to ACORN, people who are already having a rough go of it are going to face even tougher times. When Republicans hurt ACORN, they’re spitting on poor people.

I spent a couple of hours at the ACORN office recently, observing how the staff spends its time. In the (not so) luxurious digs pictured below the fold, they had a staff meeting, and afterwards, James Houston (pictured at right with Ann Chilson) and Roszina Jones-Williams (pictured above with Mike Green) began calling members. A large part of their job is to find out what the members need and help them organize to get it, as well as to educate them about the sorts of help that are available to low income people from the government and from various charities. They collect $10 monthly in dues from their members and provide a wealth of services.

Jones-Williams explained that homeowners might be concerned, say, about nearby nuisance properties. Perhaps someone is parking his car in his yard or there’s a vacant building that has become a gathering place. She counsels them on how to deal with that. Or perhaps she tells people who want to buy their first home or who have been in their first home less than three years about tax credits HUD offers worth ten percent of the amount of the home’s value. HUD also offers home improvement funds for low and moderate income people.  

People don’t even know that money is available without someone actively working to get the word out. And often, those programs require that long, sometimes puzzling application forms be filled out. Maybe Ann Chilson will be the one to help an applicant with his questions about the form. Or James may help residents organize ward meetings and invite Mayor Slay to attend and listen to their concerns, perhaps in the form of pleas for more money for home repairs. Sometimes Roszina’s job is to explain to residents who their aldermen are and how to contact them about various issues. Or, James may talk with a new homeowner about contributing to the neighborhood by taking good care of his property.

So much of what ACORN accomplishes in low income neighborhoods is aimed at keeping property values up and crime down, so that the people who live there will have safe, stable communities.

One crucial way to accomplish that is just to keep homeowners from foreclosure. ACORN staffer, Mike Green, has been advising people stuck with adjustable rate mortgages, where the rate may have soared from 3 percent to twelve percent, about how to get the mortgage refinanced to something manageable. Sadly, while the national organization is deliberating about how to deal with Republican attacks, that program has been put on hold. But people are still calling for help. People are still losing their homes. The most Green can do for them currently, though, is give them the name of another organization that might–despite long waiting lines–find time to counsel these desperate homeowners.

Another highly useful program, assistance with tax preparation, has been canceled for the coming year. The IRS says it initiated the cancellation and ACORN claims it made that decision and informed the IRS. Whatever. The point is, according to an ACORN representative:

“Acorn is now one of the I.R.S.’s largest free tax assistance providers, and we are disappointed that we won’t be able to serve the tens of thousands of families that would look to us this coming tax season.”

Despite the setbacks, though, Glenn Burleigh, Ann, Mike, James and Roszina–and ACORN workers all over the country–get on with their dogged help for those that need it. They continue to attend health care reform rallies and to demonstrate outside AmerenUE headquarters over Ameren’s outrageous 18 percent rate hike request. This winter, they’ll be explaining to people who can barely make the rent how to get some help with utility bills. Indeed, they’re training various volunteers throughout the metro area in helping people get utility bill assistance.

They stay sane–even good humored–in the face of the current demonization. When I was in the office, Ann was chuckling about the health reform lies. She’s a Brit, and she said that she kidded her mother: “You know that hip replacement you got last year, Mum? You didn’t get it. According to Republicans, it couldn’t have happened.”

You know what I think would help their mental health? I mean, besides Glenn Beck keeling over with a heart attack? A sudden infusion of cash. Feel free to cheer them up.