New housing policy won’t fit all sizes

Chalkey Horenstein
Spare Change News

The last few issues of Spare Change have familiarized the readers with a program called HomeBASE, which is intended for fighting homelessness. Much like the programs Flex Funds and Diversion that came before it, their “housing first” strategy pays a portion of the tenant’s rent for a certain period of time — this time, three years.

While I find the program to be a great step in the right direction for many homeless people, I want to raise awareness of some of the drawbacks of HomeBASE — not so much as a rebuttal, but more a list of concerns each homeless person should bear in mind in pursuit of HomeBASE.

The biggest question that comes to mind is something Flex Funds never really adequately answered for me: what happens afterwards? What if, after the six months to a year of Flex Funds, a person still doesn’t have a job? This wasn’t actually all that unreasonable to fathom, given the harshness of the job market right now in general, combined with the occasionally unfair stigma of hiring a homeless or formerly homeless person.

I know a few homeless people who ended up going right back into shelter after Flex Funds was over — and Flex Funds was not as accommodating with HomeBASE about utilities, either, meaning some families would actually go back into shelter with more debt than before entering Flex Funds.

HomeBASE has a few differences. As a HomeBASE client, you pay a higher percentage of your income — 35 percent — but you also have this agreement for three years, giving you more time to find a job. Some arrangements can even grant a utility allowance of some small degree. But while the problem has diminished, the threat of returning to homelessness with more debt is still something to consider. A homeless person must ask him or herself: do you see your career reaching the point where it can pay full rent for the entire family in three years? Do you have a clear plan of how to get there?

I work as a Case Manager in a scattered site homeless shelter called Heading Home, and many of my clients try to answer this question by avoiding the problem altogether; their hope is, in those three years, a subsidized housing opportunity will open up and they can just move out again. While this is a possibility, those applying for HomeBASE and subsidized housing should know that HomeBASE can affect your status legally as a “homeless” person — and while some would say this is the goal of a program like HomeBASE, there is a cost on the end of the homeless individual.

Many clients lessen the five- to 10-year wait on a waiting list for subsidized housing by claiming homelessness, which could lead to slightly longer waits once in HomeBASE. While some deliberation between the higher-ups is still in effect, the current ruling is that state-funded housing authorities grant a client to still file as “homeless,” but federal housing authorities do not. At the time of writing this, Boston Housing Authority has yet to decide whether HomeBASE clients can utilize homeless priority on their own waiting lists.

Although it will sound harshly unsympathetic towards the HomeBASE founders and coordinators, there are some instances where they truly don’t understand how difficult it is to be homeless. In Heading Home, we ask our clients to save 30 percent of their income, with the hope of having money when they leave, and many of them can’t even do that. What little they get from TAFDC or minimum wage jobs (heck, sometimes even $11 per hour jobs) still isn’t enough to sustain a family of two or more children in terms of schooling, food, clothes, toiletries and other necessities.

Single-mother clients especially will tell me that this is asking too much, yet their eyes light up at the thought of leaving shelter under HomeBASE — and I always warn them that if it is difficult to save 30 percent of income, it will be even harder to lose 35 percent of income that they would otherwise be saving while in shelter.

This is not to say that 35 five percent of a given income for rent is unreasonable. But the hidden fees that most don’t think about, combined with this, will make a homeless person have far more trouble getting on their way in HomeBASE than they or the higher-ups realize. By “hidden fees,” I mean that many benefits homeless people had in the past, such as repurpose money and Toolbox, are no longer a reliable option.

Those transitioning from Flex Funds or Diversion directly not have security deposits or moving costs covered for rent, either. This is especially detrimental to Diversion clients, who, given the circumstances at the time, were allotted about a week to find a new apartment — meaning many settled for low-quality apartments that fit the budget, and meaning many of them are in a rush to get into HomeBASE as a way out. While HomeBASE seems like the quickest turnaround, it will cost a bit more than planned for these unfortunate few, and far more for those not even in shelter or without a job of any kind.

HomeBASE also allows clients to enter housing even with utility or rental arrearages, which is good for some but not for everyone. Those with debt in the thousands still have a chance for housing, but this means that they will have to enter a repayment plan while in HomeBASE. A pre-agreed upon amount will most likely be added to their monthly utility bills or other monthly payments, which is just more money a client should be prepared to spend. Furthermore, my experience with repayment plans with my own clients has found that not every utility company will permit small payments at first; a few places will require an initial payment of $500 or more before they’ll agree to a repayment plan of smaller, more manageable increments. So, depending on the size of a client’s debt, this also begs the question of whether now is the best time to start paying all of these.

These are just a few of the concerns that should come to mind when a homeless person considers HomeBASE as an option. It is my hope that, as time passes, the program will continue to grow and improve in light of the problems its first few clients face, and that this article will soon be dated and irrelevant. There is plenty of time for that; the program is still very new, having only really taken off in the summer of this year. But for now, I encourage our homeless brethren to read more about HomeBASE, and think carefully before applying for the program. While it will certainly help a lot of families and individuals in the fight against homelessness, this is not to say that it will be the solution for everyone.

CHALKEY HORENSTEIN is a case manager at a homeless shelter and a writer and editor for Spare Change News.

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