22 March 2010

Dallas Housing Stimulus Effort Slow to Spend $25 Million

Dallas News
North Texas received more than $25 million in federal stimulus funds last fall to move homeless people into Dallas and Fort Worth apartments and prevent others from losing their homes because of the tough economy.

But so far, only a fraction of the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program money – about $2 million – has been spent, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the program. The amount may be slightly higher because of a lag time for reporting the expenditures to the federal government.

The program was designed to provide temporary relief to people who need help with rent or utilities because of circumstances such as job losses or medical crises.

Things are off to a slow start.

Many applicants have been waiting for weeks just to get an appointment to apply for the help. And some agencies distributing the assistance say they have been overwhelmed with requests and do not have enough staff to keep up with the demand and extensive documentation.

In Dallas, where applicants have complained about long waits, the city is evaluating whether more staffing is needed.

Three charities withdrew from the program because they said they did not have adequate staff to carry out its requirements, said Bernadette Mitchell, assistant director of the city of Dallas' housing and community services. She said others are reporting problems with the online system they're supposed to use to enter client data.

"The city of Dallas is very concerned and we are evaluating the need for more staff persons to address this particular issue," she said in an e-mail. She said the city has contacted agencies that applicants have complained about for not responding to phone calls.

"The volume of people trying to access the service is overwhelming the system," she said. "Only a certain number of people can be fully interviewed for assistance and provided other needed referrals per day."

Other officials worry that many of those eligible – especially those who have never used social services before – don't even know about the assistance, which has mainly been publicized by fliers, posters and word of mouth.

"There's a lot of money in Dallas that people don't know they could access," said Paige Flink, executive director of The Family Place, which helps family violence victims. She said The Family Place received $1.3 million in stimulus funds and has distributed more than $150,000.

The meeting

A Feb. 16 meeting highlighted the lack of awareness about the program.

Only four people attended the public meeting at Dallas City Hall to learn how to apply for the funds. All were homeless and had seen fliers or heard about the event from a friend.

But they learned that the help would not come fast: They were told it would take up to a month just to get an appointment to apply for the aid, and as many as four months to move into an apartment.

London Brooks, one of the attendees, left frustrated. He said he was in a hurry to get out of a shelter after sleeping on the floor because there weren't enough cots.

"I'm trying to get out of that place as quick and fast as I can," said Brooks, whose unemployment benefits recently ran out.

Brooks called several agencies before finally getting an appointment with the Urban League of Greater Dallas' office in Garland last week. He said he was told that he could not qualify for the assistance without some type of income. Brooks, who attends school to train for an electronics career, said he's looking for a job so he can qualify.

Shirley Walker, the Urban League's senior vice president for community services, said the program aims to make sure recipients can sustain themselves after the temporary help runs out.

"Otherwise, what have we done for him?" Walker said. "We've caused him to fail and we've also put a blemish on his credit and he won't be able to get housing once he does meet those other requirements. It's like a double-whammy."

Walker said her agency is short-staffed.

"I want to assure you, I know all of the people in this community care and are trying the best they possibly can with the constraints they have," she said. "If our clients just give us a chance, we'll work to the best of our ability to serve them."

Yvette Jackson, another person at the City Hall meeting, also said she wants to move out of a Dallas shelter as soon as possible. More than a week after the meeting, Jackson still had no appointment. She said the agencies on a list did not call her back or did not allow her to leave a message.

"Living in a shelter is something I'm not used to," said Jackson, who came to Dallas 10 months ago after losing her job.

She eventually found housing through another program not tied to the stimulus money.

'As expeditiously as possible'

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided $1.5 billion nationwide. The program can pay rent and utilities, but not mortgages, for people who meet very specific criteria.

HUD announced the rapid rehousing program in February 2009, but people could not apply for the aid in many local cities until late last year or January.

During that time, the federal government entered contracts with state and local governmental agencies and provided training so they could distribute the funds in North Texas. Some of those agencies solicited nonprofits, like The Family Place or the Urban League, to help disburse the funds, which go directly to landlords or utility companies.

Agencies found the process was not as simple as handing out money.

They need extensive documentation – such as financial records and Social Security cards – that some applicants have had trouble getting together. They also need to make sure the Texas apartments people rent charge fair market rents, have been inspected and accept the federal payments. Some clients have been rejected because of bad credit records or felonies.

The city of Dallas received nearly $8 million, which it is sharing with several nonprofits. So far, about $333,000 of that has been spent, according to HUD. But the actual amount is at least $100,000 higher because of a lag time from when the city submits expenses to HUD for reimbursement, Mitchell said.

Governmental agencies and charities have three years to spend the funds, said HUD spokeswoman Patricia Campbell. She said that Dallas officials initially faced delays executing contracts with charities but that they expect a dramatic increase in the money given out now.

"We certainly are encouraging all grantees to spend the money as expeditiously as possible," she said.

Despite possible hurdles, the money is helping many families keep a roof over their heads.

In Plano, officials have distributed more than $35,000 since Jan. 1, according to HUD. The city received $509,050.

Garland, which received $304,952, has helped at least eight families and sent 20 more to search for North Texas apartments, said Tiffinay Slade-McClinton of the city's housing agency. So far, the city has spent $3,467, according to HUD.

Chelsea White, development director of the Housing Crisis Center in Dallas, said her agency has $184,877 to distribute – and is seeing a lot of people at the brink.

"There are households that, without this money, would probably be homeless," she said.

Across North Texas, agencies received more than $25 million through the federal stimulus package to move homeless people into Dallas apartments and prevent others from losing their homes because of the economic downturn.

The Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program is designed for people who only need temporary assistance to get back on their feet. It is not for the chronically homeless, who have disabilities and need long-term help.

The money can only be used for people who:

•Are homeless or would become homeless without the assistance.

•Have no other housing options and lack resources to obtain or remain in housing.

•Earn less than 50 percent of the area's median income of $23,650 for an individual or $33,800 for a family of four.

Applicants can call 2-1-1, a help line for social services, to be directed to the nearest agencies that offer the assistance. Applicants must have a consultation at the agency to determine the appropriate level of assistance. Documentation will be required to verify income and housing status.

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