Some Stimulus Money Preventing Homelessness

Homeless programs are about to get a big push in a new direction. They used to focus on providing food and shelter. Now, the economic stimulus package is providing $1.5 billion to prevent people from becoming homeless and to quickly re-house those who do.

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Homeless programs are about to get a big push in a new direction. They used to focus on providing food and shelter. Now the economic stimulus package is providing $1.5 billion to prevent people from becoming homeless and to quickly re-house those who do.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: Nan Roman is president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The group's goal has been to eliminate homelessness in 10 years, although, since this is year nine, that's highly unlikely. Still, Roman hopes the stimulus will help.

Ms. NAN ROMAN (President, National Alliance to End Homelessness): Now we respond to housing crisis by saying here's the address of the shelter. The hope is that we would respond by saying, here, let us help you quickly get back into someplace else to live.

FESSLER: And that's what the legislation is intended to do. Funds have been set aside to help the homeless find permanent housing with support for things such as deposits and rent. Roman says it makes a lot more sense than what many communities do now.

Ms. ROMAN: You're paying $25,000 a year for a place for someone to live in transitional housing so that they can save $3,000 and move into an apartment. And rapid re-housing is essentially saying, let's not do that. Let's just give the person the $3,000 to move back into housing.

(Soundbite of door opening)

Mr. JOE MEYER (Shelter House): Seth.

FESSLER: Joe Meyer enters the living quarters at the Katherine K. Hanley Family Shelter in Fairfax, Virginia. He's with Shelter House, a nonprofit that runs the facility, which is as bright and cheerful as any nursery school.

Mr. MEYER: Three restrooms in each pod. The families are responsible for cleaning their own pods, cleaning their own rooms and cleaning the bathrooms.

FESSLER: The program here is a model that many homeless advocates hope will spread. The goal is to get the 20 families who live here into their own homes as quickly as possible by helping them to overcome whatever obstacles they face.

Mr. MEYER: So if we found out that a family was evicted because of poor housekeeping, but they have sufficient income to afford an 800 or $900 month rent, we work on those housekeeping skills. You were evicted for this, what can we do to help you to overcome that?

FESSLER: Meyer says counselors also help residents find jobs and day care and teach them to budget and stay out of debt. Sherry and her six-year-old daughter have been here since she lost her apartment in January. Her rent went up and she was unemployed.

SHERRY: That was my main struggle is getting employment and everybody really, you know, was pulling for me. They had employment counselors to come in. I had a job coach. Just everybody was just, you know, networking for me to find a job.

FESSLER: And she did find one at Jiffy Lube. Now Sherry needs an apartment, but that's difficult in the current economy. Meyer says he hopes the county will use its stimulus funds to hire more workers to track down affordable housing because there's a long list of families waiting to get into the shelter. But rapid re-housing is only half the equation. The stimulus money is also intended to prevent those on the brink of homelessness from falling over the edge.

Mr. ROB HESS (Department of Homeless Services, New York City): The basic premise is shelter is not your only option.

FESSLER: Rob Hess runs New York City's Department of Homeless Services, which has an aggressive prevention campaign. The city operates 59 community centers where people who are about to lose their housing can come for help. Hess says it might be as simple as providing mediation services for quarreling families or temporary rent until a public housing voucher comes through.

Mr. HESS: There's every variation in between those two, from the people who could just use a little more utility assistance or help with rent arrears or help deal with a housing code violation or something else.

FESSLER: The theory is that it's better for the individuals involved and the city to keep people out of the homeless system, which is often difficult to leave. Hess plans to use most of the $74 million his agency's in line to receive to enhance the community centers, which are seeing a growing number of families.

Mr. HESS: People sometimes ask, will the stimulus money we receive be enough to help us through this unprecedented difficult period of time? And, you know, I don't know the answer to that. But what I do know is it would give us a fighting chance.

FESSLER: Communities are expected to start receiving their homelessness prevention funds this summer.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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