Sequester Cuts into Massachusetts Homeless Programs

BOSTON, Mass.—In a press release on July 10, the Patrick Administration’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) announced its plans for $4 million in Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) funds it received from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to combat homelessness in the commonwealth. According to the release, roughly $1.4 million of the ESG funds will support rapid rehousing programs, and $1.4 million will support emergency and non-emergency shelter beds. The remaining $1.2 million will go to prevention, tenancy and domestic violence shelter programs.

What the release did not announce was a 25 percent cut in funding from last year, when HUD granted the commonwealth $5.3 million in ESG funds. The reason for the cut is a very familiar buzzword: the sequester. The wide range of federal spending cuts the sequester puts in motion is affecting homeless programs nationwide. Even homeless veteran programs will see profound effects, “cut to the lowest level on record,” as HUD secretary Shaun Donovan told reporters back in May.

Earlier this year, HUD estimated that 125 thousand individuals and families—mostly the elderly or disabled—will lose assistance from Housing Choice Voucher programs, according to written testimony by Donovan. He also estimated that more than 100 thousand homeless and formerly homeless people—including families, disabled adults, and veterans—will be removed from housing or shelter programs. A number of related housing and assistance programs will also be affected, including Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPA) and Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) programs.

With the start of the fiscal year, the effects of the sequester will soon be seen in programs across the commonwealth.

“It’s great to have an award, but the fact is it’s $30 thousand less than last year,” says Bill Miller, executive director of Friends of the Homeless in Springfield, currently in its 25 year of operation. Friends of the Homeless received $157 thousand last year for shelter support, but they were only rewarded $125 thousand for fiscal year 2013. Miller was surprised that the release didn’t mention the deep cuts, which is a big setback for homelessness programs statewide.

“Most state-funded shelters serving individuals, in particular, have not seen any funding increases in years, despite ever increasing need,” he says, “The need is just as great or greater than ever—we’re going to serve more people this year than any year.”

Though the Boston-based Massachusetts Housing Shelter Alliance (MHSA) still received the most funds, at $719,897, they lost $250 thousand designated for rapid rehousing efforts.

“On the rapid rehousing side, we will probably serve fewer people [this year],” says Vice President Kaye Wild. According to Wild, MHSA may have to lower its goal of people to serve or even eliminate shelter beds.

“We’re doing everything we can to minimize the damage,” says executive director Joe Finn.

Rapid rehousing programs seek to get newly homeless individuals and families into affordable housing as quickly as possible, providing assistance for a limited amount of time—weeks in some cases, months in others. These programs also seek to develop a plan for stability after clients acquire new housing.

According to Program Manager Douglas Tetrault, MHSA placed 344 into their rapid rehousing program last fiscal year.

According to advocates for the homeless, shelters in the commonwealth will need more support from the state to make up for lack of federal funding—even if it’s mostly moral support.

“Shelters serving individuals across the state are being operated by very experienced and skillful leaders who know how to get things done,” says Miller, “But I think most of us would prefer to see more support from the state even, if only to say that funding cuts will add to all of our challenges.”

The administration is very aware of the difficulties brought on by sequestration. Undersecretary for Housing and Community Development Aaron Gornstein called cuts to federal housing programs “particularly acute.”

“With these ESG cuts we will not able to fund at the same level we did last year,” says Gornstein, “There will be fewer household served, we’ll be less able to move [individuals] into permanent housing, and we can’t serve new household with Section 8 assistance.” According to Gornstein, there will be cuts to fuel assistance and weatherization assistance programs that help low-income families.

Gornstein pointed to signs Governor Patrick and the legislature are supportive of state and local anti-homelessness programs—for example, including state vouchers for low-income households in the recently passed budget. However, he also said the commonwealth won’t be able to make up the difference.

–Alex Ramirez





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