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Stimulus money to help fight homelessness

June 24, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- With waiting lists for Section 8 and public housing growing ever-longer, short-term rental assistance programs can mean the difference between a modest home and life on the streets for many Washington County residents, Community Action Council (CAC) Deputy Director Sherry L. Neil said.

CAC expects to be able to extend that assistance to an additional 20 to 25 families in the coming months with the help of about $40,000 in federal stimulus funds as part of the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, Neil said.

The Washington County Commissioners gave their approval Tuesday for CAC to apply for the funds.

Like CAC's existing Rental Allowance Program (RAP), the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) will provide a monthly rental subsidy directly to the participant's landlord, Neil said. Applicants must meet income eligibility requirements and demonstrate a housing crisis, such as homelessness or eviction, she said.

Rental subsidies through RAP generally are granted for six months, with possible two- or three-month extensions up to a total of one year, Neil said. Under the HPRP, the aid can last anywhere from one month to 18 months, or can be granted for one-time expenses such as utility deposits, she said.

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While in either program, recipients meet regularly with a case manager and participate in budgeting classes meant to prepare them to handle their rent and other expenses on their own at the end of the aid period, Neil said.

"We're trying to help these people get to the next level, so it's not always about a handout," she said.

Need for the rental assistance has been high since the recession began, and funding is obligated almost as quickly as it is obtained, Neil said.

RAP has assisted about 20 households since March, she said.

Many participants in the program are homeless when they apply, living in cars or in parks, staying in motels, going from couch to couch or staying in one of the area homeless shelters, Neil said.

A typical recipient is a mother with two or three children, living in a shelter, working and trying to make ends meet on "next to nothing," she said.

Others are single individuals who recently have lost their jobs, she said.

Getting help from Section 8, the federal government's rental voucher program for very low-income households, can require a long wait for people in need of immediate help, officials said.

"It's difficult because when you lose your job, you need it right away," said Richard Willson, executive director of the Housing Authority of Washington County. "It usually takes six months to a year to get through the waiting list process (for Section 8)."

As of last month, the county had 761 people on a waiting list for only 498 Section 8 vouchers, Willson said. The need for Section 8 has been rising steadily for months, but the number of vouchers available hasn't changed in 10 years, he said.

The Section 8 vouchers are not first come, first serve, Willson said. They are awarded based on need, with priority given to victims of abuse, people living in substandard housing, families depending on wages for income, and elderly and disabled applicants, Willson said. As the waiting list gets longer, it becomes harder for applicants who do not meet those conditions to receive aid, he said.

For those people, CAC's short-term programs provide a quicker route to getting out of a shelter and into a space of their own, Neil said.

Depending on the number people in the household, CAC can provide a rental subsidy of $220, $250 or $400 per month, Neil said.

It's not much, but participants in the program generally find efficiency or one-bedroom apartments from private landlords with rents in the $400-to-$500 range, she said.

"We can help with a good portion if they find something that's affordable," she said.

Neil said she hopes to be able to start administering the stimulus funding at the beginning of September.

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