Stimulus Dollars Helping Fight Homelessness

Wednesday, October 7th 2009, 10:54 pm
By: News On 6

By Alex Cameron, Oklahoma Impact Team

OKLAHOMA CITY -- A common criticism of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has been that too much of the money is going to support or expand social programs.  No wonder, then, that some people roll their eyes over the fact that $1.5 billion in stimulus money is going to prevent homelessness.

Oklahoma is getting about $12 million to fight homelessness, far more money than has ever been thrown at the problem at any one time before.  And there are many who feel strongly that the money, aside from being long overdue, will make a real difference.

One reason is that the face of homelessness is changing.  In Oklahoma City, in Tulsa, and across the state, families are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population, and homeless advocates believe current conditions only threaten to make things worse.

"Because of the economic situation we have families in our community that are struggling," said Tom Jones, president of City Rescue Mission in Oklahoma City.

City Rescue Mission's director of social services, Debbi McCullock, said they're gearing up to help those families and others who find themselves on the brink.

"The idea is that we can try to prevent a first episode of homelessness," McCullock said.

City Rescue Mission is one of several agencies in Oklahoma City contracted by the city to help disburse its $2.1 million homelessness allotment.  The program, known as Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP), targets people who might be having trouble coming up with this month's rent, are behind on their utilities, or need help with a car payment.

Jane Ferrell, Oklahoma City's urban redevelopment specialist, said she sees this as a one-time opportunity to help a population that tends to be overlooked.

"We're looking to serve a minimum of at least 200 people a year. It's a three-year program," Ferrell said.

Tulsa is receiving two direct ARRA disbursements for HPRP: $1.9 million for the city of Tulsa and   Tulsa County.

Agencies there, as in Oklahoma City and across the state, will not be using the money to re-house the chronically homeless. That population, often characterized by long bouts with addiction or mental illness, is excluded in the stimulus program. Screeners will determine HPRP eligibility by checking applicants' income levels and by asking a series of questions.

"One of them is, 'but for this money, would you remain homeless or become homeless?'" said Sandra Lewis, executive director of the Tulsa Day Center for the Homeless.

Lewis said they're looking for the person who is nearly or newly homeless; the person, for whom the only thing keeping them from being self-sufficient is the payment of a bill or two.

Another $8.1 million in stimulus money is going to the rest of the state. That includes the state's ample rural locations, where pride might be more likely to keep those who have fallen on hard times from asking for help.

"So it's going to be the responsibility, in our opinion, of many of these agencies receiving funds to reach out, to go to utility companies and see if they can't get some referrals," said Vaughn Clark, director of community development for the state department of commerce.

Supporters of the program say this is an excellent use of stimulus funds because it not only fulfills a moral obligation to lift up the downtrodden but keeps those people from putting an added drag on the economy.

"I'm not an economist, but common sense would tell me I'd rather have as many people as possible staying on the job, keeping their house, paying their utilities," Jones said.

Lewis said financially helping those in need to become self-sufficient will end up costing less in the long-run.

"Often, when someone becomes homeless, everything around them crumbles and they lose, not only their place to live, but their job and their support system, and it costs more for us to shelter someone than it does for us to keep them in their apartment," Lewis said.

HPRP officially begins operation October 19th. Those wanting to see if they qualify for assistance are asked to call 211.