By Susan Milton April 29, 2009 ORLEANS — For the first time since the 1990s, the Cape's largest source of housing for homeless people and those at risk of homelessness has run out of money to help.
"We have turned away — and this is shameful — we have had to turn away 100 people in the last two months," Allison Rice, vice president of the Housing Assistance Corp. of Cape Cod, said yesterday.
The nonprofit and other homelessness-prevention groups are seeing an increased demand for such help as rent subsidies, emergency shelter, food and fuel.
In 2008, HAC distributed $952,000 to prevent homelessness on the Cape and Islands. Through April this year, HAC has already spent $998,000 because of the poor economy, Rice said at a summit about homelessness at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Orleans. She was talking to about 33 advocates for the homeless who help run programs across the Cape.
Yesterday's event was intended as a legislative breakfast, but all House members were involved at the Statehouse in debate on the state budget, which offers no prospect for housing relief in the year beginning July 1.
The current House budget proposal would cut the $35.8 million budget for rental vouchers by 45 percent, according to executive director Libby Hayes of Homes for Families, a statewide advocacy group for the homeless.
The voucher program is a cheaper way than shelters to fight homelessness, said Hayes and Rice, who are worried about the impact on renters, as well as landlords who count on the rent.
"For a family to be in a shelter on the Cape costs $4,920 a month," Rice said. "We can house a family for a year-plus for just over $2,000, and most don't come back. I'm not good at math, but I can understand this."
Health and human services budgets "are on the chopping block," said state Sen. Robert O'Leary, D-Barnstable, who attended the meeting. "There will be a battle, a debate, and we'll try to temper (the cuts) largely through a tax increase" of some kind, he said. The House has voted to increase the sales tax from 5 percent to 6.25 percent.
At least 81 state representatives have objected to a cut in rental vouchers, HAC executive director Rick Presbrey said. Advocates yesterday asked people to call state legislators to lobby for the funding.
Not all the news was bad yesterday. The Cape homeless prevention network is waiting impatiently for $765,000 from the current state budget with $322,000 specifically targeted to prevent families and individuals from becoming homeless, Rice said.
The money originally was due Jan. 1.
The state budget problems are worrisome to Diane Ellison of Dennisport, who was homeless last August with her four daughters. They moved into a shelter; she got a job and found a house she could afford with a $300 monthly rental subsidy.
"My kids said the other day that this is the first time in six months that we haven't had anything shut off," Ellison told those attending yesterday's summit. She now is happy to be working 40 hours a week in the laundry room of a Cape nursing home.
Unfortunately, the state program that helped Ellison now only provides rental subsidies for two months, not a full year, Rice said.