Homeless funds have wide impact

WHERE WERE YOU and what were you doing August 1 of this year? Whether or not you can recall, odds are you weren’t homeless. But as many 130 people in Columbia County didn’t have a home of their own that day.

A few years ago agencies that track and provide services to homeless people changed their method of assessing the homeless population to a “snapshot” approach, selecting particular days and having all the agencies report how many active cases they have open on that day. That’s where the date comes from. The new approach is supposed to be more revealing than the data previously available, though it too undoubtedly misses a lot of people, just like unemployment figures do.

Who are these homeless people? Did they bring their hardships on themselves? Maybe some did, but with the highest unemployment rate in more than a quarter century and the economy still sputtering, the profile of who needs help is changing.

A preliminary analysis of the most recent snapshot data found that most of the homeless people here called Columbia County home the last time they had a home. They’re not outsiders who thought they could get a good deal in this county.

Some have lost their jobs and then their homes and then run out of relatives and friends who would give them a place to stay. Some may have a mental illness or a substance abuse problem, but there are also moms with kids whose fathers don’t pay child support because they’re deadbeats… or because they’re out of work and homeless too.

The federal economic stimulus package includes money to help communities deal with homelessness. Columbia Opportunities, Inc., will receive over half a million dollars from a statewide allocation of $25 million.

But wait. How is homelessness connected to economic stimulus? That sounds like some special interest rider tacked onto the bill at the last minute. But is it?

Well before the stimulus bill was needed, the law required the county to provide emergency shelter for people who suddenly lost their homes. Everybody expects that to happen in a natural disaster; that’s why firehouses around Columbia County opened up as emergency shelters when last winter’s ice storm cut power and blocked roads. As a country, we’ve decided that it isn’t right for people to freeze to death on the street. The principle is not much different from what former President George W. Bush said about healthcare: If you’re sick, you can always go to the emergency department of a public hospital. The law says that too.

But like hospital emergency care, which is the most expensive way to handle common medical problems and illnesses, dealing with homelessness after it happens can cost a lot more than keeping people from losing their homes to begin with. And that’s part of what the economic stimulus package funding for Columbia Opportunities will do.

Among other things, it will allow the agency to help pay the rent for some people in jeopardy of being evicted. Sure it’s a free ride for the tenant, but when the alternative is putting a family in a motel at $75 a night, it’s a bargain. It also has ripple effects, like giving a person a little more time to find a new job, keeping buildings occupied and promoting more stable neighborhoods. Stable neighborhoods have less crime, which means that taxpayers pay less for law enforcement and the value of properties rises–you get the picture.

The federal money will also pay for the services of a lawyer to help people facing eviction. Sometimes landlords have really good reasons for ousting tenants; sometimes they don’t. If somebody was trying to prove to a court that you should be tossed out of your home, you’d want a lawyer. Landlords almost always have lawyers. This program just makes the system a little fairer.

One thing this money doesn’t do is pay for a big bureaucratic build-up. Columbia Opportunities expects to add only one person to cope with what will probably be a big increase in the agency’s workload.

In the middle of a recession it can seem like government is giving away our money and getting little or nothing in return. But even though this funding is aimed at the people who’ve lost everything, there’s something in it for all of us.

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