Helpless Hands

GCCS was supposed to help the poor. But after letting $15 million in anti-poverty funds slip away, the question is whether it can help anyone -- even itself.

In her office in an old building at the edge of downtown, Ruth Marshall, the director of Houston's Project Head Start for the last 20 years, looks downcast. A short woman with steel-gray hair, she tends to screw up her face when pondering the answer to a question. Today, she's been trying to explain her efforts to manage one of the most important federally funded anti-poverty programs in Harris County. While most public-service administrators have difficulty finding funds, Marshall has suffered from just the opposite problem: she hasn't figured out how to spend the money available to her.

From 1991 to 1994, Congress nearly tripled the budget of Houston's Head Start program, from $10.4 million to $29.3 million a year. With that increase, Marshall was supposed to enroll more than 2,000 new preschool children in Head Start. During the last four years, other Texas cities have received proportionate increases. San Antonio has used its funds to add 1,100 children to its program; Dallas has added more than 1,200; and Fort Worth has grown by 700. Houston, funded to be the state's biggest program, has added only 400 children. No other Head Start agency in the state has been declared by the federal government to be so seriously deficient.

Marshall almost hangs her head in shame when pressed about how much money her agency has failed to spend. "Through May 1994, about $5 million," she says. "Through May 1995, $9 million was not drawn down for children. While that's a lot of money not spent, at least we didn't go out and waste it."

Not, that is, unless you consider it a waste to pass up needed funding that you can never get again, as is the case with the $14 million Marshall refers to. Swallowed back up by the federal bureaucracy, that money is no longer available to Houston's Head Start program. In March 1994, when more than a dozen federal monitors reviewed Marshall's operation, they criticized almost every aspect of its management, citing inadequate maintenance, lack of a waiting list, improper hiring and firing, failure to delegate authority, and -- not surprisingly -- sloppy accounting and purchasing procedures.

Houston Head Start's most pressing problem has come from its failure to expand. The U.S. Department of Human Health and Services has declared that if the city's Head Start program doesn't reach its target enrollment of 5,700 children by next January 6, then it may take away its grant altogether and give it to another organization.

That might be the only way to end the problems with Head Start's parent agency, Gulf Coast Community Services Association, the largest community action agency in Texas. While failing to supervise Head Start, GCCSA has also fumbled $1.2 million in utility assistance funds that would have helped local residents pay their heating and cooling bills during the last two years. People seeking help from Gulf Coast with their utilities have been subjected to rude treatment and broken promises of assistance. Only pressure from a group of angry ministers seems to have brought improvement in the program.

With all these problems one might think that advocates of the poor would have thrown up pickets and protests around GCCSA's headquarters. After all, in excess of $15 million seems to have slipped through the agency's fingers in recent years. Yet far from being focused on GCCSA's poor performance, past and present GCCSA board members charged with representing the poor have instead protested efforts to change GCCSA's management, spending their time accusing government and business leaders of trying to hijack the agency for their own purposes -- though what those purposes might be, no one seems to know.

GCCSA has board members from three different sectors: poverty members elected by the poor, and appointed government and business members. In June, when GCCSA board members from the government and business sectors moved to fire GCCSA director William Lawton, the poverty sector representatives protested in the streets. They packed the July board meeting with supporters of Lawton, reversed his firing and forced the resignation of board chairman, and HISD administrator, Livy Wilson II. Only the pressure of federal deadlines seems to keep the board on track for approving new Head Start facilities and clearing up other administrative problems.

Meanwhile, the simplest of administrative obligations goes unanswered. Since last October, GCCSA has owed Harris County Commissioners Court a copy of its financial audit. For months, Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, who has a seat on the GCCSA board, has repeatedly requested a copy of the audit from Lawton in letters and by phone, but at press time he had still received no response.

With its board in disarray, its management in question, its employees in rebellion and its books under suspicion, Gulf Coast poses a perplexing question: how could an agency whose financial resources have been soaring get into so much trouble?

In 1967, when Congress required local officials to designate a single community action agency to receive federal anti-poverty funds, the Harris County Community Action Association (HCCAA) was created. In 1976, HCCA changed its name to Gulf Coast Community Services Association to reflect its ambitions to serve not just the county, but the region.

Beginning with a budget of about $5 million, Gulf Coast became one of a thousand community action agencies across the country to receive a variety of federal funds to help the poor. GCCSA receives federal, state and local grants for job training, drug counseling, family therapy, illiteracy, homelessness, housing emergencies and utility assistance. The agency's broad theme has been the "empowerment" of its clients, to provide them with the skills they need to get out of poverty. Its annual budget -- provided it manages to spend it all -- is $41 million this year.

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