Homeless Advocates, Lawmakers Talk Funding Strategies
By: Michael C. Bailey
Local homeless prevention advocates were scheduled to sit down and meet last week with members of the Cape’s legislative delegation, in an effort to plot a revised course for state spending on homeless prevention services.
“We’re very concerned about our funding, and we want our legislators to understand that,” said Estella M. Fritzinger, CEO and executive director of the Community Action Committee of Cape Cod and the Islands.
The Cape and Islands Homeless Prevention Network called the meeting hoping to head off the loss of the state grant that has funded its efforts over the past year and a half: the $765,000 Massachusetts Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness grant.
Mr. Fritzinger said that the Cape’s agencies that serve the homeless all found local matching funding for the program, which in turn leveraged additional government funding, but the network still needs state support to stay alive.
“The reality is these services are needed more than ever and resources are finite,” she said. “It’s a very difficult time financially, straight across the board.”
Network officials now hope to convince lawmakers that funding currently allocated for sheltering families in hotels would be put to better use preventing homelessness in the first place. Robert H. Murray, former director of the Falmouth Housing Authority and current director of the Falmouth Housing Corporation, said the plan is to request a $450,000 transfer.
To sweeten the pot, this request would come with a stipulation that Cape homeless service agencies provide a minimum 50 percent match through independent fundraising activities. If successful, the resulting prevention fund would be worth $675,000, about 68 percent of what the region received last year, according to Mr. Murray.
“Will that do the job? Probably not,” he said, “but it’s a hell of a lot better than zero, which is what we have now.”
“The Cape has always been very pro-active” in addressing homelessness, Ms. Fritzinger said, “and what we’re saying now is, let us use some of the money now going to sheltering for prevention…prevention and case management are not only more cost-effective but are a more humane way of treating the issue, and gets clients back to self-sufficiency quicker.”
The Cape and Islands network is one of 10 pilot programs launched last year to help distinct geographic regions better collaborate with local agencies providing services to the homeless.
Although sheltering is still the default approach for many programs, and state funding follows that mindset, “People are starting to shift their gears from what used to be conventional wisdom,” Ms. Fritzinger said, “that sheltering is not always the best approach.”
The network in its first year the network implemented two successful intervention programs, one regional in scope, the other focused on downtown Hyannis.
The former effort is the network’s homelessness crisis hotline, a 24-hour-a-day “phone triage” system that can instant connect homeless individuals or people facing imminent homelessness with the necessary resources.
According to information provided by Ms. Fritzinger, between February and June of this year, the hotline received 206 calls, the bulk of those coming from people living in the Hyannis area. Of those, 23 individuals and 12 families were placed temporarily in motels, some of them later going into a local shelter. A total of 190 callers were referred to local human service agencies.
The second effort, “The Hyannis Main Street Initiative,” was launched in response to ongoing tensions between Main Street business owners and a homeless population that was regarded as disruptive and problematic for proprietors and customers alike.
As part of this project, the Barnstable Police Department originally identified 93 homeless individuals known to frequent the Main Street area, classifying them in one of two categories: a “police” designation indicated a person with a criminal history who regularly drew police attention; and a “services” designation indicated someone who the police were aware of but did not necessarily interact with beyond directing them toward available services.
The initiative’s goals included obtaining permanent housing for those people identified as homeless or in a transitional program.
Of the 28 people identified as in need of services as of a March 2009 head count, nine are in a housing situation as of April 2010, and none of the six in a transitional housing situation are still there. The number of people living in the Hyannis NOAH shelter has been halved, from six to three, since March 2009.
Of the 35 people with the “police” designation identified in the March 2009 count, the number of people in the NOAH shelter dropped from six to zero, the number of people in jail dropped from eight to four, the number of people “couch surfing” (staying in a friend’s or relative’s home) fell from eight to one, and the number of people living on the street dropped from 10 to one. Another five found housing, whereas no one in this category was housed as of March 2009.
No up-to-date information on the program was available.
These two programs exemplify the Cape’s “housing-first” prevention-oriented approach to helping the homeless, an approach that Mr. Murray maintains is more economically efficient than shelters.
According to Mr. Murray, prevention-based programs cost on average $1,500 to keep one family in their home for one year, whereas shelter-based programs cost $3,000 per family per month. If the Cape receives the $450,000 it hopes to have transferred into prevention services, and generates the $225,000 in matching funds, it would be able to help 450 families stay in their homes. If spent instead on sheltering, it would serve 30 families.
“It’s a terrible waste of taxpayers’ money,” Mr. Murray said of the sheltering method, yet many homeless advocates elsewhere in the state remain committed to that approach out of habit.
Mr. Murray said Cape Cod itself did not “step outside that box” until 1992, when a regional homeless sheltering program decided to try a new approach.
For the first two years of the program, run by a coalition of Cape churches, 21 families per year were provided with motel rooms at a cost of about $600 per month. In the third year coalition but its money toward prevention, and instead of doling out $600 per family per month, “it cost us $600 per case.”
As an added benefit, by diverting the flow of homeless people away from shelters, the cost of running those shelters decreased.
This information was presented to the Legislature in 1992 as it began work on the FY03 budget, and the Housing Assistance Corporation on Cape Cod (HAC) has since 1993 operated the state-funded “Project Prevention” program to help individuals and families avoid homelessness.
That program has also lost its state funding -- $300,000 -- due to budget cuts.
According to information provided by HAC, the program has reduced the number of homeless families on the Cape by more than 50 percent at a typical one-time cost of $2,100 per family. The cost of sheltering that same family is $4,900 per month, with a typical shelter stay ranging from four to six months.
Thanks to Project Prevention, there are no currently no homeless families living in Cape Cod hotels being supported by a state subsidy, and the Cape’s total shelter capacity was reduced by 25 beds. In 1990, according to Mr. Murray, about 100 families were living in Cape motels.
Ms. Fritzinger said homeless advocates fear that without adequate funding for prevention programs, this progress would be undone and the Cape’s homeless situation would revert to where it was “at least a decade ago.”
Another state program, Residential Assistance to Families in Transition (RAFT), had its funding slashed to $60,000 in the Fiscal Year 2011 state budget. That program began FY10 with $5.5 million, but was reduced to $160,000 through “9C” emergency cuts made by Governor Deval L. Patrick. That money, according to State Representative Matthew C. Patrick (D – Falmouth), went to the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program.
Rep. Patrick -- who was invited to this morning’s session but could not attend due to a previous commitment -- said there was a distinct possibility of these and other housing programs receiving funding, thanks to $26 billion in Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) aid approved by Congress.
Massachusetts is set to receive $655 million, $450 million of which is Medicaid funding and $205 million of which is educational funding. However, Rep. Patrick said, “Nothing’s guaranteed.”
Rep. Patrick drafted and circulated among his colleagues a letter to Gov. Patrick requesting a partial restoration of RAFT funding, to $3.06 million. “Even if we could get it up to the level of $3 million, that would work,” he said. “That’d help a great deal.”
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