Federal funds help find homes

Columbia Opportunities gets stimulus money to fight homelessness

HUDSON–As of August 1 of this year, about 130 people in Columbia County were seeking some kind of assistance because they were homeless. Some were individuals, some were families; one family, a single parent with kids, was living in the family car.

Those figures make a recent federal grant of $584,962 to Columbia Opportunities, Inc., the local, non-profit service agency that addresses housing and other issues countywide, all the more welcome. The money is for homelessness prevention and comes through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, also known as federal economic stimulus funds. With this grant and other funds in the pipeline, Columbia Opportunities will have over $1.5 million for programs to reduce homelessness and support other programs like home winterization and Head Start in Columbia and Greene counties.

Tina Sharpe, executive director of Columbia Opportunities, says the new economic stimulus funds grant will help homeless people find housing but will also allow her agency to focus on preventing people from losing their homes in the first place. “Homelessness prevention is one of the things we’re really excited about,” she said in a phone interview last week.

Ticking off the common reasons why people can no longer pay their rent–the loss of a job, a disability, a lack of child support–Ms. Sharpe said that “with this new pot of money, we will be able to maintain a person in their home for a longer period of time,” with the hope that the person can get back on his or her feet and stay or find a new, less expensive place to live.

Ms. Sharpe said that approach is much cheaper than meeting the legal requirement to find a place for people to live who suddenly lose their housing. The motel rooms where the county currently houses homeless people cost from $65 to $75 a night.

Columbia County officials are currently wrestling with how to provide shelter to homeless people at a lower cost, but they have as yet been unable to settle on a solution to that problem.

The new funds also will pay for the services of a Legal Aid lawyer to help people threatened with eviction. In the past, said Ms. Sharpe, “tenants have rarely had a legal representative in court.”

Overall, she said, “We do expect to be able to help at least 60 individuals with stabilization of their living situation.” 

But the prevention funds won’t help everyone who needs assistance, and some people will still end up homeless, so some of the money will be directed to the “Rapid Re-housing” program. That will help support the counties’ shelter systems and pay for the start-up costs that face people trying to find a new place to live. It will also help the agency determine what has caused the people seeking assistance to become homeless.

The funds from the federal economic stimulus package were announced by the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) at the end of August and will pay for the programs over 22 months. Columbia Opportunities had to compete for the money and was one of 25 agencies out of 66 that applied statewide.

“We must continue to do all we can to help the most vulnerable New Yorkers get through this economic downturn and ensure that those on the brink are not forced into homelessness,” Governor David Paterson said in a press release announcing the grants. He said that helping eligible individuals and families secure and maintain safe, stable housing will give them a chance at economic security.

The grants are part of $1.5 billion made available through ARRA for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Homelessness Prevention Fund, including a total of $141.2 million awarded to communities around the state. The state’s larger municipalities received funding directly from the federal government, with the remaining $24.9 million being awarded competitively by OTDA.

The funding, said Ms. Sharpe, “will make a huge impact.” 
 

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