Stimulus grant helps Columbia combat homelessness

Thursday, December 17, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — When people become homeless, it's not only shelter that they lose. They also lose contact with the community, said Deborah Beste, executive director of Phoenix Programs.

Without a permanent address, the homeless have no place to receive mail, no place to get messages and no place for a possible employer to contact them.

“There's that disconnect from the community when you're homeless, and it's a big leap to get back to that connection,” Beste said. “That's what we're trying to avoid."

Phoenix Programs is one of the three organizations that the Columbia-Boone County Department of Health's Division of Human Services teamed up with to run its new Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program. Funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the two-year $405,358 grant offers financial support and case-management services to prevent people from becoming homeless and to re-house those who already are homeless.

Lutheran Family and Children’s Services and Central Missouri Community Action are the other two organizations the Division of Human Services chose to work with to deliver the services. Phoenix Programs and Lutheran Family and Children’s Services began providing case management for program participants in October. Central Missouri Community Action will begin distributing the program’s rental and utility assistance on Jan. 1, 2010.

In addition to securing housing, the program furthers one of the stimulus act’s overarching goals, creating jobs. The program partially finances two new full-time positions, one at Lutheran Family and Children’s Services and the other at Phoenix Programs.

Steve Hollis, manager of community services for the city and county, said the organizations were selected because of their ability to create positions that would remain after the grant expires. After  salaries and  administrative costs, about $200,000 of the grant will be available for direct financial aid.

"Over two years for rent and utilities, $200,000 is not going to be going a long way,” Hollis said. “That's why it will be targeted at people who are most at risk of losing housing or becoming homeless but at the same time have the best chance of keeping that housing."

Hollis said the number of homeless and near-homeless people in Columbia who qualify for the program means demand will surpass funding. So assistance will be given on a first-come, first-served basis,  Hollis said.

The grant emphasizes the role of case management in stabilizing participants' housing. Sometimes providing financial help alone only puts a bandage on the situation rather than addressing the real causes of homelessness, Hollis said.

Providing counseling to the homeless and near-homeless after ensuring they have places to live is part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s recently adopted Housing First strategy. The philosophy is that moving people off the streets or out of shelters and into permanent housing will save lives and allow those living with disabilities such as mental illness or addiction better opportunities to improve.

"People get help for the problems that they have, whether it's substance abuse or mental illness, after their housing needs have been taken care of,” Beste of Phoenix Programs said. “I think that's something new for people to get used to."

The homeless or near-homeless with mental illness or substance abuse problems are not the only groups the program will help.

"I think sometimes people have a predetermined view of why someone may become homeless, but it does happen as a result of people losing their jobs or illness," Beste said.

Beste said Phoenix Programs expects to work with at least 50 families during the program’s first year. To ensure the money is really going to those at the highest risk, Phoenix will conduct an eligibility review every three months.

"We know statistically that housing first stabilizes a family," said Dianna Moore, director of economic development at Central Missouri Community Action. When people have homes, they can focus more energy on getting an education or finding a job, she said.

Central Missouri Community Action will distribute money for short- or medium-term rental assistance, rental and utility arrears, rental and utility deposits and utility payments. People must meet income requirements, be homeless or on the verge of homelessness and meet with a CMCA family advocate to qualify.

CMCA also is distributing aid through separate grants in Audrain, Cole, Cooper, Howard, Moniteau and Osage counties. "That's the other exciting part, in CMCA's case, this is for a whole region," Moore said.

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Mike Martin December 17, 2009 | 9:03 a.m.

"After salaries and administrative costs, about $200,000 of the grant will be available for direct financial aid."

So in other words, over 50% of this money will go to pay "salaries and administrative costs."

That's why these programs are such boondoggles -- so little of the money actually gets to where it's needed most. Instead, it ends up enlarging government or non-profit agencies, two organizations that, around here anyway, don't really need any more fattening up.


AUDIT BLASTS: Major Columbia non-profit group

(Yes, though given no credit for it by either newspaper, we actually broke that story.)

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro December 17, 2009 | 12:37 p.m.

Yea. BCCP has made the news regarding its audit and its board.
For this particular grant, among CMCA, Phoenix House and the Lutheran agency, it would be nice to know which agency eats up most of the grant in "payroll and administrative costs?"
There are nonprofits and church groups that can administer assistance of this kind, as a virtual pass through.
How were these three groups chosen as the most efficient or worthy?

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro December 17, 2009 | 2:03 p.m.

If the goal of this grant is to provide financial aid and case-management services to prevent people from becoming homeless and to re-house those who already are homeless, perhaps a better way to keep "payroll and administrative costs" down would be if a coalition representing private landlords partnered with a voluntary agency, such as Love, Inc.
(Just some food for thought.)

(Report Comment)
Darin Preis December 17, 2009 | 5:19 p.m.

The purpose of "case management" is for those at risk to have someone to talk to and troubleshoot their situation with them. That could go in a variety of directions that qualified social workers are well-trained to guide. This, of course, means that staff are necessary. Most organizations that offer professional case management require staff to be effective. Lutheran Family and Children's Services, and Phoenix programs are well-known for their excellence in case management and have been contracted to offer this part of the program. CMCA has a great deal of experience managing direct assistance programs and will handle this part of the contract primarily with existing staff.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro December 17, 2009 | 7:59 p.m.

("In addition to securing housing, the program furthers one of the stimulus act’s overarching goals, creating jobs. The program partially finances two new full-time positions, one at Lutheran Family and Children’s Services and the other at Phoenix Programs.")
With all due respect to the recipient agencies, just seems like $205,358 to partially fund 2 new full-time case manager positions seems expensive for partial start-up money to encourage the creation of 2 new social worker-type jobs, IMHO. (Would be nice if the Missourian had a more finite breakout for the grant's dollars.)
("Over two years for rent and utilities, $200,000 is not going to be going a long way,” Hollis said.")
How many families will actually be "bailed out" for $200,000? Will this include back mortgage payments and curtail their forclosures? Is their a maximum dollar amount allowed per household in need? Is cash being given out directly, to these 50 families mentioned in the article, or are they just getting somebody to talk to? Is a voucher system being used or are the agencies dealing directly with the banks, landlords, utility companies and vendors?
(Where can one view the details and parameters of said grant?)

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin December 18, 2009 | 10:04 a.m.

@Darin Preis:

You should identify yourself as the Executive Director of CMCA -- Central Missouri Community Action -- and a major recipient of these so-called "poverty reduction" grants.

If these grant-funded programs, which ostensibly seek to end poverty, require this much administrative oversight -- staff salaries, etc. that consume over 50% of the grant funding -- I would posit to you that the programs are flawed from the start.

They are either too complex, too bureaucracy-laden, or too inefficient to do a job that requires the least complexity and the most efficiency possible -- ending poverty.

Running already distressed people through a bureaucracy mill isn't any way to attack a problem of this magnitude.

But sadly, it's been THE way ever since Lyndon Johnson's New Society programs threw up large, segregated, and eventually crime-ridden public housing projects across the country, and made government the de-facto arbiter of redistributive approaches to poverty elimination.

Finally, curing poverty should not be about throwing money at government and non-profit programs.

In this country especially, it should be about changing an insidious racial dynamic that has repeatedly attacked the minority community's ability to prosper.

It should be about changing a terribly flawed immigration system that's become so legally onerous it fails to protect US residents and fails to embrace productive immigrants from around the world.

It should be about encouraging productivity and embracing each person's individual ability to better their own life.

These overpriced grant programs don't even address these goals, let alone come close to fulfilling them. They are but leaky bandages on festering wounds.

(Report Comment)
Carlos Sanchez December 18, 2009 | 5:55 p.m.

Thank you Phoenix Programs for all that you do for this entire community. With out your undying love and understanding many men and women would not have had a second chance at life. Never mind all of the negativity from Mr Martin and Mr Shapiro over the financial part because it is quite obvious to all they have never seen the darkest sides of the sufferings that come through your doors daily in this community. Maybe Phoenix Programs should ask Mr Martin and Mr Shapiro to become night staff at one of their facilities and see how hard the work is first hand. Yes it costs money to run your programs but the rewards come back 1 million fold if just one life can be saved.

Thank you very much for all that you do for our community.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro December 18, 2009 | 9:47 p.m.

Rest assured that I have a very high regard for the Phoenix House shelter, the Phoenix Programs which counsel adults and teenagers and the Phoenix Program "family and support groups." The concerns, expressed in my posts, actually extend way above and beyond any one particular recipient agency. I'm just curious if "we" are maximizing government funded grants in the most efficient way. Without the Missourian releasing the finite details of said grant, and the sparseness of the article, it seemed to me more like a "stimulus political PR piece" then any meaningful answer to root causes of homelessness.
Just one man's opinion on the way our government intervenes and throws money at a symptom, such as homelessness, while falling short of addressing the core issues and real problems which cause this societal disconnect. My experience has been that even if one has an address, a roof over their head or manages to avoid being on the streets, a person can still consider themselves, (or let's just say "feel"), that they are homeless.
Have a Merry Christmas and keep safe, dry & warm.

(Report Comment)

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