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July 11, 2012

Help expires

Stimulus funds that helped struggling households avoid homelessness run out

Celebrate or scorn it, as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 retreats into history, programs evaporate. Such is the nature of the temporary injection of stimulus funds into the economy.

On July 9, a program that helped 3,543 individuals in Louisville, including the homeless and those teetering on the edge due to foreclosure, an eviction, sudden loss of employment or domestic violence, ended. It’s called the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP).

Administered through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Louisville’s HPRP grant totaled $4.87 million split over three years. Most of the help came in the form of rental assistance. The program’s ultimate goal focused on stabilizing struggling households so that once this temporary financial boost ended, they’d survive on their own.

But with the program over and the economy still limping, many who provided counseling, budgeting classes and other services to HPRP clients have concerns. While programs exist for those already in the homeless shelter system, little is out there for Louisvillians about to plunge. HPRP plugged that hole.

“There are currently very few resources in our community that provide that same type of support,” says Wade Jordahl, director of homeless prevention services at Family and Children’s Place. “So unfortunately some of the families who were not quite stable at the end of the program may fall through the cracks.”

About 160 clients remained active in HPRP as of July 9. Joe Hamilton, who supervised Louisville’s program, estimates about half will sustain housing without the monthly lump sum HPRP provided. The other half, he says, just doesn’t have the income at this point.

“There is that concern that 80 of them, 80 households will now enter our shelter system,” Hamilton says. However, he points out that most of those clients will likely find an alternative to an emergency homeless shelter.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, no more than 10 percent of people in poverty find themselves entering an emergency shelter over a year. Many couch surf as they struggle to get back on their feet, making this population rather invisible.

Like a lot of stimulus programs, when the money first started flowing in 2009, there was a lack of structure. Qualified candidates went to their area Neighborhood Place and received month-to-month assistance. In the first six months, the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program tallied 1,200 clients. Money, Hamilton says, “flew out the door.”

In 2010, HUD lumbered forward with greater guidance. The agency wanted clients to sustain housing once weaned from assistance. With that directive, Hamilton says he rewrote the program, paring down the number of clients served to about 260 (though more would eventually enroll). He then coupled rental assistance with money for 12 to 18 months of intensive case management that would help individuals mend whatever threatened their housing stability. He says the changes resulted in “better outcomes than the … first six months of the program where it was a free for all.”

Still, HUD has no plans to fund a long-term effectiveness study of HPRP.

“That’s a national complaint,” Hamilton says. “That there isn’t some kind of mandated tracking over, say, the next six months.”

But success stories have been documented. Jordahl, with Family and Children’s Place, tells the story of one woman who suddenly found herself among the nearly 10 percent of unemployed Kentuckians when the economy crumbled.

“(The woman) said she never thought she would be unable to make it on her own,” Jordahl says.

While she had extensive work experience in the IT industry, she lacked any certification, which the competitive job market demanded. With the help of HPRP funds she kept her home, continued to look for work and found other sources of funding to cover the costs of schooling.

A strong work history made her a prime candidate for HPRP. This program wasn’t intended for chronically homeless.

“Several HPRP clients are college-degreed folks,” Hamilton says. “And this is truly their first time receiving assistance.”

In the next few months, the Metropolitan Housing Coalition will issue a report of testimonials highlighting the program’s successes. Cathy Hinko, the housing coalition’s executive director, says the monthly lump sum of up to $600 handed to recipients built financial scaffolding. Not only did it cover rent, many put it toward debt incurred during their period of unemployment.

“People could stabilize from their past,” Hinko says, “which is a real gift for people who are temporarily without income.”

But HPRP’s cost savings remain intangible. Since these individuals never ended up in the homeless system, it’s hard to know how long they would’ve stayed or to gauge the possible health consequences of such a traumatic turn. Curtis Stauffer works as the Metropolitan Housing Coalition’s advocacy project coordinator. He says HPRP’s temporary tenure kept households intact, and he worries about the timing of its disappearance.

“My personal concern is that there’s clearly a need for support of this type,” Stauffer says, “especially given the fact that we … continue to have a lot of both unemployment and underemployment.”

Metro will soon begin a similar program through a different federal grant, but it can only serve roughly 50 to 60 clients per year. Meanwhile, programs like HPRP may dwindle. HUD is shifting much of its focus to re-housing folks already in the system.

“It’s a real change in previous policy from when I first came around seven, eight years ago,” Hamilton says. “It was homeless prevention, homeless prevention. How do we keep people from entering the front door? And now … the emphasis has shifted from taking people already in (the system) and placing them out.”

What that means for that vulnerable class hanging by a thread is hard to tell. But the juggling of bills, debt and finding a relative’s couch to sleep on likely continues. 

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