Sunday, March 22, 2009

States cope with rising homelessness

States cope with rising homelessness

Sun Mar 22, 2009 12:31 pm (PDT)
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
States cope with rising homelessness
By Christine Vestal, Staff Writer

Photo by Scott Sady, The Associated Press
Tent cities are springing up around the country, including this one next to
a homeless shelter in Reno, Nev.Nearly 700 homeless families in
Massachusetts are living in hotels at state expense because emergency shelters are full.
New York City saw a 40 percent rise in families seeking shelter since the
recession began. School districts nationwide reported more homeless kids in the
fall of 2008 than the entire year before. And tent cities have sprung up
throughout Hawaii and in Sacramento, Calif., Reno, Nev., Phoenix, Portland,
Ore., and other cities.

It’s one of the most alarming aspects of the economic crisis: State
officials are seeing levels of homelessness they have never seen before. President
Barack Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus package includes $1.5 billion to
address the problem, but officials say it’s not enough to cover the cost of
housing for millions of families in crisis.

As many as 3.4 million Americans are likely to experience homelessness this
year – a 35 percent increase since the recession started in December 2007 –
and a majority will be families with children, according to the _National
Alliance to End Homelessness_
( . The predictions are based on rising levels of unemployment and
poverty, plus a severe shortage of affordable housing created, in part, by the
mortgage industry collapse.

By the time a family shows up in a shelter, they’ve done everything possible
to avoid homelessness – stayed with friends and family members, gone without
food and sold their possessions. They’ve expended every financial and social
resource they have. Some were middle-class families felled by layoffs and
ballooning mortgages.

Nationwide, some 9.6 million families spend more than half of their income
on housing, putting them at high risk of becoming homeless, according to the
_National Low Income Housing Coalition_
( . In addition, apartment building foreclosures are causing families to be
evicted even when they are paying rent on time, said Linda Couch, the
coalition’s deputy director.

Before the economic crisis struck, states had made progress getting homeless
families and individuals off the street. Homelessness declined 10 percent
between 2005 and 2007, as states and cities began subsidizing permanent housing
for working families and moving chronically homeless individuals with
disabilities into specialized care facilities.

But as homelessness rises, revenue-strapped states will be hard pressed to
maintain those gains.

Experts agree that the only effective method of reducing homelessness is to
quickly move people into permanent homes and pay their rent until they regain
their footing. Without stable housing, people’s lives continue to unravel,
no matter how much state support they get. But paying a family’s rent is an
expensive proposition.

“You need a lot of cash to help these families pay for housing because they’
re so poor and rents are still very high, and many need a year or more to
find jobs,” said Robyn Frost, director of the _Massachusetts Coalition for the
Homeless_ ( .

Obama’s stimulus package includes a nine-fold immediate increase in an
existing grant program that funds shelters. But instead of going to shelters, the
funds are dedicated to either helping families hold onto their homes or
subsidizing housing for those already homeless.

“The emphasis is on prevention, because helping people facing eviction or
foreclosure stay in their homes and keeping kids in the schools they’re
enrolled in will save states money on health care and corrections in the long run,”
said Michael Stoops, director of the _National Coalition for the Homeless_
( .

Before the recession, 41 percent of the homeless population was families
with children and most held jobs. About 25 percent – the most visible,
chronically homeless – suffered from mental illness or drug addiction. “Now, because
of foreclosures and layoffs, we’re seeing middle class families – not just
the working poor – in shelters,” Stoops said.

In addition to shoring up homelessness prevention programs, advocates for
the poor say Congress should have included money for low-income rental
assistance, programs they say languished during the Bush administration. In economic
downturns, rents often get cheaper, making it easier for states to support
homeless families. But in this recession, fueled by millions of home
foreclosures, the supply of housing has tightened forcing rents to go higher.

“In some parts of the country, rental costs are so high that even if people
get their jobs back, they can’t afford housing. There are literally millions
of people that don’t earn enough to afford what the market charges,” said
Barbara Sard, an analyst with low-income advocacy group the _Center on Budget
and Policy Priorities_ ( .

Although advocates for the poor urged Congress to include low-income rental
assistance in the stimulus package, many members were concerned that any
expansion of the $40 billion federal housing programs would be difficult to
scale back after the stimulus period ended. So instead, states are negotiating
with landlords for lower rates and many are trying to purchase and rehabilitate
boarded-up homes for low-income families.

Advocates are hopeful that provisions in the stimulus package such as
expanded unemployment benefits, Food Stamps and welfare will help alleviate the
homeless crisis. “But until unemployment goes back down, we’re going to be up
against it. When that gets fixed, things will start getting better,” said
Steve Berg, director of the National Alliance.

The stimulus package includes two other programs that experts say could have
a positive long-term effect on the supply of affordable housing: a $4
billion public housing fund for rehabilitating vacant apartments and a $4.2 billion
neighborhood stabilization program to help communities purchase foreclosed

But Berg cautioned that the current surge in homelessness will have lasting

A new study from _The National Center on Family Homelessness_
( , which found that one in 50 American children is
homeless, said the disruption and isolation caused by homelessness affects kids
the rest of their lives. Children experiencing homelessness have twice the
rate of health and emotional problems compared to those with stable housing and
they have significantly lower high school graduation rates, the _report_
( found.

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