Rapid Re-Housing Program for homeless slow to find applicants

By Janette Williams, Staff Writer
Pasadena Star News

PASADENA – Financial help is out there for Pasadena residents made homeless by the economic downturn, but so far only two families have qualified for the city’s $400,000 Rapid Re-Housing Program.

“It doesn’t seem a lot,” said Sandra Peterson of Union Station Homeless Services, which runs the program for the city.

But, she said, very specific rules on how the funding can be used have restricted it to a very narrow group.

“We’ve screened 22 (households) and been able to assist these people in other ways” since the rehousing program began in January, she said. “But the key to this program is that people must be homeless – not on the verge, not having just got an eviction notice. Those were the guidelines the federal government sent: the household must be homeless at the time we serve them. And that’s the challenge for us.”

Rapid Re-Housing funds can’t be used for people behind on their rent, for utility arrears, or those living with family, Peterson said: that’s the role of the city’s $452,000 Homeless Prevention Program, funded by the second part of a $908,000 federal grant.

When the city received Rapid Re-Housing funds in May, 2009, the federal guidelines were interpreted to mean that only those made homeless by the economic downturn were eligible, said Ann Lansing of Pasadena’s Housing Department.

Since then, federal government information “continues to trickle in on how to use it,” she said, and jurisdictions have more latitude.

“Some are being very strict, others are opening up a little more,” she said. “We’re choosing to open up a little more.”

The re-housing funds do not extend to the “chronic homeless,” Lansing said, since the program is designed to help people who will get back on their feet quickly, with no continuing need for subsidies or services.

Most jurisdictions, including Pasadena, have found homeless prevention funding easier to use because of its broader application, Lansing said.

Since January, 65 households have been helped by the homeless prevention program through Friends in Deed, said the Rev. Pat O’Reilly, executive director of the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Pasadena.

“We’re helping 20 households a month … keeping people in their homes,” O’Reilly said. “It’s not a free ride, it’s for people really trying to get back on their feet and taking back the reins as soon as they can.”

William Huang, Pasadena’s housing director, said the entire federal grant must be used with three years, and both Union Station and Friends in Deed must spend 60 percent of their allocation by Nov. 30.

“We want to encourage (Union Station) to reach out to agencies that service people who may be at extreme risk of homelessness, because they may not be aware of the network of services available,” Huang said.

Peterson said Union Station is playing by the program’s rules, but is trying to get “more creative” on connecting applicants to the economic downturn.

Making a direct connection isn’t always easy, she said.

“We can’t say they are homeless because a company went out of business,” Peterson said, “but we can look at the background progressively.”

Reduced hours or layoffs that left families unable to pay rent can be used to show the effects of the downturn, she said, and many people may not even realize the connection themselves.

“I really believe we will be able to serve people, and I don’t expect we will have to return any money,” Peterson said. “In hindsight … we’re on a learning curve, all of us involved in these programs. The lessons we’ve learned, we’ll be able to give as feedback,” to the department of Housing and Urban Development, she said. “They may be able to do things differently the next time.”

Paterson said fewer restrictions, including not waiting until people are “absolutely homeless,” would make the program easier to administer.

“But I truly believe this is a great effort to help people as quickly as possible, people who fall between the cracks,” she said. “Finding them is our job.”

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