Paul S. Castro, executive director of Jewish Family Service (JFS), has spent his career working on behalf of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised. The 22-year JFS veteran, who became chief executive in 2000, has watched the agency grow exponentially over the past couple decades. Under his direction, JFS has worked aggressively to diversify its funding sources and has increased its endowment from $2 million to more than $7.4 million. JFS, which employs 430 full- and part-time employees at 25 locations throughout Greater Los Angeles, offers counseling, supports the elderly and disabled, provides housing for the homeless and feeds the hungry, among other services. The agency helps more than 60,000 people annually. Castro, a genial man who holds a law degree from Loyola University, said he is proud to oversee JFS as it celebrates its 150th anniversary. With budget cuts looming, though, his joy is tempered. As government tightens its proverbial belt, Castro worries it is the poor who will get squeezed the most. He spoke to The Journal about JFS' prospects in these tough times.
The Jewish Journal: What are JFS' most interesting new initiatives?
Paul Castro: Our most interesting new initiative is called a NORC, or Naturally Occurring Retirement Community. A growing segment of the senior population are now "aging in place" in their own neighborhoods. They want to live independently in their own homes, so the NORC will bring our services to them, creating a virtual retirement community. As the baby-boom generation ages, I believe the NORC concept of independent living will become the norm. We are one of just a few pilot programs in the country, supported by a grant from the federal government.
JJ: What are your biggest concerns?
PC: My biggest concern is whether we will be able to raise sufficient funds to keep the safety net strong for the thousands of people who rely on us. My biggest frustration is trying to convince our policymakers to look beyond the dollars and cents and see the implications of severe cuts in social programs. A strong safety net is good social and fiscal policy. For example, it's much cheaper to provide in-home care to seniors than place them in nursing homes.
JJ: Do you find it ironic that more people than ever need JFS services because of the faulty economy yet government funding is getting slashed?
PC: For the social service community, this is the "perfect storm." At the center of this storm is the growing demand for services. A slow economy has made donors more conservative in their giving and low returns on investments have forced many foundations to cut their grants significantly. And now government is struggling to close funding gaps that are in the billions.
JJ: If funding gets dramatically slashed, how will JFS respond?
PC: It depends on where they cut and how much. But significant reductions in funding would mean reductions in services. There is no way around that, but we'll do our best to maintain the highest level of service we can.
JJ: What services has JFS cut in the past couple years?
PC: We have made some cuts in our counseling programs. Funding for counseling has diminished or remained flat for a number of years now. Our costs continue to go up while our revenue lags farther and farther behind. We are seeing more clients who can't pay and fewer clients who have insurance. It is a challenging situation, but we have no plans for future cutbacks.
JJ: How is JFS changing the way in which it lobbies Sacramento?
PC: We need to be proactive in protecting our clients and we can't do it alone. The key is to build coalitions. I recently attended a meeting in Sacramento with representatives from The Federation's Jewish Community Relations Committee, the Jewish Public Affairs Committee and other social service agencies. The purpose of this meeting was to build a coalition to fight cuts in MediCal.
JJ: How has JFS managed to survive 150 years?
PC: JFS has survived by continually adapting to change. As an organization we have been fortunate to have strong lay leadership with a vision of a responsive and proactive JFS. Whether helping a poverty-stricken community during the Great Depression or resettling refugees after World War II, JFS has persevered in its mission to strengthen and preserve individual, family and community life. I believe this tradition will carry us over the next 150 years.