WASHINGTON — In rural communities and urban areas alike, one of the least expensive and most unheralded new initiatives of the stimulus bill is quietly saving hundreds of thousands of Americans from homelessness.
Now housing advocates want Congress to boost the program's $1.5 billion funding as the vast need for more assistance becomes evident nationwide.
The Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program is expected to help 600,000 people by moving some from homeless shelters into their own apartments and by providing rent payments to prevent others from being evicted.
Because the assistance is temporary — usually for three months to 18 months — the program tries to target people who are most in need and can who can return to self-sufficiency within a few months.
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Experts say the initiative breaks new ground in federal housing policy by focusing more resources on preventing homelessness and getting people back on their feet, rather than just feeding and warehousing the destitute.
"When you think about it, it really makes sense to focus on getting people back into housing faster," said Nan Roman, executive director of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. "Instead of long stays in some homeless facility with a lot of service delivery, wouldn't little bit of money help people stay where they are and not end up in the system at all?
On top of the estimated 672,000 who are already homeless on any given night in the U.S., the alliance expects the recession to push 1.5 million more people into the streets.
Those predictions appear to be accurate because ever since the HPRP funds became available in the fall, local social service agencies that provide the cash have been overwhelmed by requests for help.
At least 60 percent of the program funds must be spent within two years and all within three years, but officials in many areas say their funding won't last that long because of the staggering number of people who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads amid rising unemployment, job losses and financial hardship stemming from the current recession.
In Miami, the Dade County Homeless Trust expected the program to fund rental assistance for 1,500 needy households over the next two years after its program began in September.
When more than 1,200 applications poured in within 45 days, however, "we put a moratorium on (applications) in mid-October until we figured out how much money we'd be spending if we assisted everyone," said David Raymond, the executive director of the trust. "We had an idea that the need had increased drastically, but we were surprised by the number of folks that came in within that short a period of time."
In Salt Lake County, Utah, the program was supposed to house 70 families continuously for its 30-month funding life.
Overcrowding in the two local homeless shelters for families, however, forced the HPRP program to immediately find apartments for 130 families. "Without the HPRP program, we would have had to open a third family shelter . . . But we will have to slow down our rate of placing families in the program to make our money last," said Michelle Flynn, associate executive director of The Road Home, an agency that helps run the county's program.
The Women's Center of Wake County in Raleigh, N.C., has already spent two-thirds of its first-year funding in the first three months of the program, providing rent, utility and other housing-related assistance to 37 households.
The Coastal Community Action Program in Aberdeen, Wash., has nearly exhausted its projected two-year allocation of $110,000 in just four months. In Lewis County, Wash., which has the state's highest unemployment rate — 14.1 percent — Reliable Enterprises has gone through nearly 70 percent of its $120,000 first-year budget in just four months.
Amy Prokopowicz, a homelessness prevention counselor at the women's center in Raleigh, said the desperation of people who need the money often spills out during emotional office visits — especially for those with children.
"They're upset. They're hysterical. They're at their last straw," Prokopowicz said. "If you've got kids and you don't know if you're going to get this money, that's very stressful. There are children that sleep in cars in Wake County."
To better meet the unprecedented need, advocates want Congress to include an extra $1 billion in HPRP funds in the new jobs bill being drawn up by congressional Democrats. The extra money would help an additional 200,000 families and create about 2,000 new jobs at community agencies. Roman said advocates have received no firm commitments on their request.
The additional funding is the right amount to balance the unmet need and the ability of local agencies to spend the money effectively, said Douglas Rice, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He said the short-term need for the assistance far outweighs any long-term budget concerns that more funding might raise.
In addition to rent and relocation services, the program pays other housing-related costs such as security deposits, utility payments and moving and storage costs.
"It's good money to spend. Much better than bailing out Goldman Sachs and the big banks," said Elaine de Coligny, the executive director of EveryOne Home, a housing agency that helps run the HPRP program in Alameda County, Calif.
Her agency hoped to use $10 million in federal HPRP funds to help move 1,200 families out of local homeless shelters during the next three years.
Within two weeks of the program launch in November, however, the agency received 2,000 requests for assistance and had to stop taking applications at four housing centers until its staff could work through the backlog. Ninety percent of the applicants met initial program guidelines for income and need.
While they won't all pass the more rigorous personal screening, de Coligny said, "It's clear there are far more people qualified to receive this assistance than the funding allowed."
Joseph Wright was one of the lucky ones. When a summer job fell through, the 44-year-old substitute math and science teacher fell two months behind on his $850 monthly rent. Unable to borrow the money or move in with a friend, Wright, a refugee from Nigeria, put his furniture in storage and checked into a Berkeley, Calif., homeless shelter in November.
He worked while staying at the shelter until he received his first paycheck in early January. Working with a local agency, the HPRP program paid half of Wright's rent for the first two months on a new apartment in Richmond, Calif., where he now teaches.
His moving expenses, storage fees and other related costs were also paid, which allowed Wright to put his paycheck toward other expenses. He just moved into his new place last week. Without the assistance, he'd still be in the shelter.
"Without the program I would be in a desperate situation. I'd have no stability. And without stability you can't make progress," he said, adding that the program helped restore his faith.
"It made me more hopeful. I'm more hopeful in how to deal with the future because I know that I'm not entirely alone," Wright said. "I'm not the only person on the planet by myself."
Susan Gregory of Raleigh felt the same kind of isolation when she faced eviction earlier this year. Gregory, 55, works as a nurse's aide. When two of her elderly patients died in early 2009, her hours were cut and her income fell from $2,000 a month to $700 a month. Before long, she'd fallen behind on her bills and exhausted her savings.
By October, she owed $2,100 in back rent and faced eviction from her apartment of eight years. After being homeless 10 years ago, Gregory dreaded having to relive the experience.
"Knowing what that was like and thinking about having to do that again, I was getting really, really depressed," she said.
The women's center threw Gregory a lifeline. Through the HPRP program and other charities, the group agreed to help her pay her back rent, 75 percent of next month's rent, half of the following month's rent and a declining share going forward until she could save enough money to pay her own way.
"I knew if I stayed positive that positive things would happen," Gregory said. "But honestly, I was slipping. Mentally, I was slipping."
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