Local non-profits that offer services to the homeless are expecting change.
Pinched by the loss of state revenue, these groups have been forced to cut back in some areas while they expand their search for new sources of funding.
The organizations are also facing federal funding changes after an expansion of the definition of "homeless" that allows funds to go more toward preventive measures and moves individuals more quickly into permanent housing.
The situation has left organizations searching for new initiatives to make up for lost funding and placing a greater emphasis on programs aimed at preventing at-risk individuals from becoming homeless, which is the crux of the federal government's funding strategy.
Jean Carroll, president and CEO of the YWCA of Rochester & Monroe County, said nearly all organizations working with the homeless have been affected by state budget cuts.
"It's been very challenging, especially in the last year," she said. "The way it's happened is that when the economy goes negative, the private sector feels it right away, but for non-profits there's a lag of two to three years. So what the private sector went through two or three years ago we're going through now."
The loss of funding is compounded by slow economic recovery, which has placed greater pressure on the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless, said Carrie Michel-Wynne, director of housing for the YWCA and chairwoman of the Homeless Services Network, a consortium of 40 organizations serving the homeless in Monroe County.
The economic situation has caused an increase in individuals spending 50 percent or more of their income on housing, Wynne said. As a result, she predicts a surge in the number of individuals seeking assistance.
Because the economic downturn created a drop in tax revenue that is not expected to be reversed, the funding cuts are seen not as a temporary challenge but instead as the new reality, Carroll said. The situation is made worse by the needs of the clients, she adds, who are often women and people with mental disabilities, generally with no resources of their own.
The cuts come in part as the result of a state consolidation that brought three previously separate divisions under the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, Carroll said. One state initiative, Supportive Housing for Families and Young Adults, was consolidated with the Supportive Housing Program, and its funding was slashed.
The program once had a pool of $5 million that was distributed statewide, but that was cut to $2.5 million after the recession began, and this year it was reduced to a bit more than $500,000, Carroll said.
"Any cuts are big on our ability to deliver services, and for services to the homeless there have been substantial cuts in recent years," she said.
The YWCA has lost $150,000 in funding, which has been difficult to make up, Carroll said. The organization's officials said it is difficult to say how much of the total state portion this cut represented, as fund allocations shift throughout the year, but they pointed to figures that showed total state cuts have left funding levels far below needs.
The Volunteers of America of Western New York Inc. also lost funding for the variety of services it provides to the homeless, said Pat Drake, chief operating officer. The funding, which focused on prevention services, once totaled $150,000 before being phased out over the course of a few years, Drake said.
"We need to break the cycle of homelessness, but it's difficult when the state grants have been cut and others put out for re-competition," Drake said.
For the YWCA, the situation has led to efforts to raise funds elsewhere, Carroll said. Last month the YWCA announced it had received $1.3 million through M&T Bank toward improvements to its housing units. The bank is a member-lender of the Affordable Housing Program, serving as a sponsor of the non-profit's applications for funding.
With the money the YWCA will be able to give its main building much-needed updates-a new roof and flooring and new major appliances for each of the six floors. The building, which has 96 housing units, has not had a major renovation since 1992, Carroll said.
The YWCA also is taking other approaches to make up for lost funding. Carroll said representatives have spoken to the area's state legislators, providing information about program costs and the potential savings by investing in services for the homeless.
"This is a population where if you don't take care of them, they end up in higher-cost options like hospitals or jail," she said. "Even given that fact, it's still a difficult situation, and we're looking to our legislators to reconsider some of the cuts, especially if there is any income at all that they find."
The VOA has increased its fundraising, mailing to 2,000 new donors, for example, Drake said.
The YWCA also is expanding fundraising, using a strategy that gives potential donors a personal connection with its clients.
"I can't tell you how many times I had someone come into an emergency shelter and say, 'I never thought I would be here,'" Carroll said. "These are normal people in difficult circumstances, single women forced to live out of cars. It's a difficult experience for our community to go through, and we're doing as much outreach as we can so people understand that."
The VOA has taken a novel approach to raise awareness, creating an interactive online scavenger hunt that leads participants to different facts about homelessness. Participants collect points as they go and can earn prizes such as gift cards or a $600 Droid phone.
"We're trying to raise private donations, and this is a way to introduce people to the problem and raise their awareness of homeless services," Drake said.
There is some positive news on the state level, Drake noted. The state budget included some funding for both the state Supportive Housing Program and the Solutions to End Homelessness Program.
Changes to funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development are leading to a shift in how homeless services are delivered.
The change came through legislation known as the HEARTH Act, or Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009. It authorized HUD to fund homeless services but shifted the focus of this funding.
"The act opened the definition of homelessness to include people at risk of being homeless, so for the first time HUD is using money from the stimulus act to fund programs that prevent homelessness," said Florence Koenig, coordinator of the Rochester/Monroe County Continuum of Care, which allots federal homeless funding to local agencies. "This is the most cost-effective approach."
The act also focuses on moving homeless individuals into permanent housing more quickly with a model called "Housing First." The old system is set up so those who become homeless might spend a few weeks in an emergency shelter before moving to temporary housing, where they could stay for up to a few years. The Housing First system would move them to permanent housing, removing roadblocks such as sobriety requirements for substance abusers, Koenig said.
This new system likely will bring significant changes to organizations set up for emergency and temporary housing, Koenig added. Utilization rates in temporary housing locally remain high-more than 90 percent, she said-but individuals are staying for much shorter periods.
Through the HEARTH Act there also will be a closer look at rental subsidies, Koenig said. This will focus on individuals with disabilities and those at risk of becoming homeless, and though initial federal funding in this area will expire at the end of the year, the city and county are working to continue the efforts, she added.
Koenig, who had worked in homeless services at the YWCA until this year, said that even with the new focus from the federal level, the effects from state budget cuts are pervasive. These cuts could also put federal funding at risk, she added.
"The state funding comes from federal dollars, and the state money leverages matching money," Koenig said. "The loss of state funding not only cuts services but cuts the ability to leverage federal money as well."
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