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Published: Monday, 6/29/2009

Toledo gets aid to prevent homelessness

BY NEENA SATIJA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Millions of dollars in stimulus funds are flooding into Toledo as part of President Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but not everyone is scrambling for the cash.

"I could spend 50 percent of my time trying to figure this money out and not even know that I'm going to get it," said the Rev. Dan Rogers, president and chief executive officer of Cherry Street Mission Ministries, which runs two homeless shelters in the area. "Personally, as an agency, we're not interested."

The agency raises all of its money in the private sector, and Mr. Rogers wouldn't have it any other way. And though his agency isn't eligible for the $3.2 million that will go to Toledo as part of the government's Homeless Prevention and Rapid-Rehousing Program, he plans to turn to the private sector to help the city's public agencies make the best possible use of those funds.

The program represents a shift on the part of its architect, the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Rather than targeting those who are chronically homeless, the funds are intended to help families who need the least amount of assistance to stay housed.

"It's a paradigm shift, and that is going to take a lot of reorientation, and we want to do it well," said Pastor Deb Conklin, interim director of the Toledo-Lucas County Homelessness Board.

One of the key aspects of the program is identifying those it is meant to help. It is likely that many of the families eligible for assistance under the program have never been in such a situation before but are struggling under the current economic conditions.

Mike Badik, an official at the Toledo Department of Neighborhoods, said the funds are to reach the "but for" people - as in, but for the program's assistance the family would be homeless.

But it's a little more complicated than that.

Families are eligible for the federal assistance only if it will keep them permanently housed. Case managers will have to determine if people qualify as they come in for help, and if they aren't eligible, they'll have to refer them elsewhere.

Mr. Rogers' chief concern is identifying those families.

"Will we have the capacity to handle this amount of money to reach people that we don't know about?" he said. "I don't think we do."

Mr. Badik pointed out that the agencies that could reach those in need are not necessarily traditional homeless service providers such as Cherry Street Mission Ministries. He said Lucas County Job and Family Services, the Salvation Army, and the Economic Opportunity Planning Association are among agencies with the capabilities for the job.

The task force established by the city to administer the funds is drafting a request-for-qualification document that agencies wishing to participate in the program can fill out.

The task force is looking for agencies that can provide initial screening for households asking for help, as well as give them whatever resources they are eligible for.

The program distributes money for a narrow range of reasons, including short and medium-term rental assistance, security and utility deposits, moving costs, and motel or hotel vouchers. Job training or other services that might lead to self-sufficiency are not part of the program.

Ms. Conklin said the goal is to rapidly rehouse 100 to 125 families and to prevent 400 to 450 families from becoming homeless. Since the service cap per household is time-based, not financial, that number may change - but families needing disproportionate amounts of assistance would most likely not be eligible for the program's money anyway.

All the money has to be spent in three years, and each household served is allowed 18 months of assistance. That means if a case manager gives a family two months' back rent so they aren't evicted, they've got 16 months left to apply for additional housing assistance if needed. The city must enter a contract with HUD for the funds by the beginning of September, so public officials and homeless advocates have to act quickly.

"We know that we're under the gun for the ticking clock. It's a lot of money to spend in a short order of time," Ms. Conklin said.

Homeless advocates are wary of such requirements but understand the funding is meant for an unusual population in unusual circumstances. "We're beginning to understand how these stimulus dollars work," said Linda Stacy, member of the Homelessness Board. "Typically, government processes don't happen this fast."

Contact Neena Satija at:

nsatija@theblade.com

or 419-724-6272.



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