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.