Social service leaders are seeking public opinion tonight in searching for solutions to the ongoing government funding crunch.

Social service leaders are seeking public opinion tonight in searching for solutions to the ongoing government funding crunch.

"Social services are now being funded at lower levels than they have been for years," said Dee Anne Everson, director of United Way of Jackson County. "People are hungry. People don't have homes. People are losing the homes that they have."

Tonight's panel discussion, "Shredding the Safety Net: How Washington is Crippling Vital Services in the Rogue Valley," is aptly named, she said.

Everson and other leaders from nonprofit agencies on the panel are responsible for addressing the needs of a wide range of the county's population, including victims of domestic abuse, those struggling with chemical dependencies, and those who are experiencing hunger and homelessness. Each will speak of the increasingly damaging impact of federal budget cuts on local people.

While much of the funding for social service agencies comes from private donations and foundations, federal contracts to provide critical services were designed to be a major portion of their income streams, said Herbert Rothschild, the director of Peace House's Federal Budget Education Project.

But while polling consistently shows the majority of people want to see social services funded, those services continue to be on the federal chopping block, he said.

The moderator of tonight's discussion, Rothschild has been speaking at local civic organizations for the past year on the funding issue. People tend to think in abstract terms about what Congress and the president do, he said. They make judgments from party loyalty or ideological commitment. But there is nothing abstract about the impact of these decisions, he added.

"We want people to see what's happening," Rothschild said. "They are impairing vital community services, damaging our schools, undermining child nutrition and health, stifling job creation and compromising public safety. Ultimately these are our families and our neighbors we're talking about. We need to start from that personal reality when we think about tax policies and appropriations."

OnTrack Inc. provides prevention and treatment for Southern Oregon residents struggling with addiction, poverty and related dysfunctions.

When government decides to swing the budget ax, "human services is an easy target," said Rita Sullivan, executive director.

But budgets can be deceiving, she said. Two-thirds of funding for drug and alcohol issues go to law enforcement and interdiction services. One third goes to treatment options or other programs that help heal what's driving the addictions, she said.

Cutting these vital services creates a tragic and cascading effect that costs everyone, including taxpayers, Sullivan said.

"Every dollar spent in prevention and treatment saves $7 down the road," Sullivan said. "Basically, the more money you put in the front end, the more money you save. Not the other way around. I want people to understand if they continue to invest because it's a cost-efficient investment."

United Way spends half its resources providing funding support for 51 nonprofit programs in the Rogue Valley. The other half goes to fund its own programs, such as the Hope Chest, an emergency fund that helps people with everything from surgical stockings to wood to heat homes to assistance with rent and power bills, and the Jackson County Child Abuse Network, a coalition of agencies dedicated to preventing children from being abused. The coffers for these vital services are often running on empty, Everson said.

"Private philanthropy can in no way make up for government funding. We have to either come up with creative ways to fund these services, or we have to do what we can to ensure government does what it can to help those in need," Everson said.

Government is not a nebulous thing, it is all of us, Everson said. She urged community members to attend tonight's discussion and act if they want to see change.

"You've got to fight the apathy," she said. "You've got to do something to make it work."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.