Family housing program goes bust
Cape housing activists say they've done a good job keeping local families out of shelters by developing a homelessness prevention program that serves as a model for the state.
But now that state prevention funds have just about run dry, the activists fear Cape families teetering on the verge of homelessness will lose their housing.
"We are in disbelief," said Chris Austin, executive director of the Homeless Prevention Council in Orleans. The agency's state-funded homelessness prevention funds ran out this month.
Prevention funds that paid for back rent or utilities helped her agency keep 850 children in their own homes last year, Austin said. "We're going to be sending these children into shelters" now.
The budgetary crisis began more than a year ago, when Cape towns stopped receiving money from two state sources for homelessness prevention, said Virginia Ryan of the Housing Assistance Corp. in Hyannis, also known as HAC.
The Cape lost its share of state funds through Residential Assistance for Families in Transition, which came to $500,000, as well as $280,000 in a special earmark for homelessness prevention on Cape Cod, she said.
The earmark had hovered at around $300,000 since 1993, when Cape housing advocates developed a homelessness prevention program to get families out of motels. To be eligible for the earmark, private organizations in the community — such as the Dennis-Yarmouth Ecumenical Council for the Homeless and the Barnstable Interfaith Council — had to raise matching funds, Ryan said.
The combination of state and private funding works, she said. "We no longer have families staying in motels."
The situation is different in other parts of Massachusetts, where more than 1,000 people recently were living in motels at state expense, although that number is now below 700, housing advocates said.
They say the state is diverting money from homelessness prevention to deal with the emergency shelter problem, but that solution could aggravate homelessness on the Cape. "They're sort of robbing Peter to pay Paul," said state Rep. Matthew Patrick, D-Falmouth, who unsuccessfully lobbied for a restoration of funds in the current budget.
Spending money on prevention "just works so much better and it's much more cost effective," Patrick said.
It costs the state $4,000 to house a family in a motel for a month, while one-time homelessness prevention assistance typically comes to $2,100 or less, said Allison Rice of HAC.
In fiscal 2010, HAC spent $249,000 keeping 244 families in their homes, Rice said. Housing advocates used $500,000 from a one-time Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness grant of $765,000 to fund prevention programs affected by state cuts last year.
Now the ICHH money is also gone, said Austin, whose Orleans-based agency helped 45 families avoid losing their housing in the first three months of 2010.
State officials have indicated housing agencies should rely more on private donations, but in this recession-strapped economy that is asking a lot of the community, Austin said.
Austin said people who traditionally gave her agency $50 are now making donations of $25.
In an e-mail, Liz Curtis, ICHH executive director, said the Patrick-Murray administration is focused on a "housing-first" model.
"We will continue working to identify best practices in homelessness prevention and are dedicated to understanding how those efforts can be raised to scale in order to reach at-risk households across the Commonwealth," she wrote.
Rep. Patrick said he'll support a supplemental budget to try to restore homelessness prevention funds before the 2011 fiscal year is up.
"At one point we had a lot of people in Barnstable Count