Local homeless programs get new federal funding

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A year ago, a program that serves 15 homeless families in the North Hills lost its own lease, raising questions about its future. On Tuesday, the HEARTH program -- like thousands of others nationwide that help shelter those in need -- found out that it will be able to keep roofs over heads for at least another year.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it is steering nearly $1.5 billion to 7,100 programs that contend with homelessness, including $15.6 million to 101 programs in southwestern Pennsylvania.

"Everything we applied for, we were awarded," said Rob Eamigh, housing program administrator for the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. That's a welcome result in a time when many government funding spigots are being slowly shut.

"These funds are now part of not just helping fight homelessness, but are actually part of a broader strategy to end homelessness," said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan in a conference call with media announcing the funding. He said that despite a tough economy, HUD data released last week shows a 2 percent drop in homelessness from January 2010 to January 2011.

HEARTH, for Homelessness Ends with Advocacy, Resources, Training and Housing, had long received $143,000 a year for its program that housed 15 women and their children in St. Benedict Academy in Ross. When the sale of that building forced HEARTH to move, the organization decided to place the families in rental housing while developing a new building.

The private rents drove costs through the roof.

The county helped HEARTH put together a new application for federal money, and starting last month it is getting $423,000 to cover rents for the families, now temporarily relocated to Scott. On Tuesday, HUD awarded another $73,000 to HEARTH to provide housing for disabled women.

Meanwhile, the program is looking for the last $600,000 of the $7 million needed to transform an empty Shaler building into housing for some 20 families.

Judy Eakin, executive director of HEARTH, said the federal funding keeps alive a program that puts homeless moms in school and stabilizes their kids' lives.

The mothers are "getting marketable degrees, which means when they leave us, they will get employment," she said. She said that 75 percent of the women served by her organization end up with full-time jobs, and 84 percent leave for permanent housing.

Most of their children have bounced from school to school. But once they are housed with HEARTH, most are placed in the North Hills School District, even during their temporary sojourn in Scott. They get help developing friendships, building academic skills and paying for things like field trips and class pictures.

The families are then helped into rental housing, typically in the North Hills, and become taxpaying members of the communities that have hosted them in their times of trouble.

The county last year got around $12 million in federal funding to house homeless people, said Mr. Eamigh. On Tuesday, it was granted $10.14 million, and it is pursuing another $3 million for new programs that will get their awards in the spring.

Most of the money covers various forms of shelter, but some goes for case management, education, drug and alcohol counseling and other services.

Mr. Donovan said that President Barack Obama's administration has brought 19 federal agencies together to map a route to eliminate homelessness among veterans within five years, and among families within 10 years.

He said that local governments, too, have started to realize that combatting homelessness with their own funds can save them money, by reducing demands on police, paramedics, schools and other services.

Initial results, he said, are good.

The 636,017 people found homeless on a single night in January of this year was down 2.1 percent from the same time last year. He said homelessness among veterans is down 12 percent.

"Today, instead of seeing a huge spike in homelessness [due to the economy], it's actually beginning to go down," he said.

Allegheny County saw a small downward shift in its spot count of the homeless, from 1,486 people with emergency, transitional or no housing in January 2010 to 1,420 in January of this year. Troubling, though, was an increase from 221 to 318 in the number of chronic homeless -- those who have experienced homelessness for 15 or more days at least four times in three years, or have been consistently without regular shelter for a year or more.

Ms. Eakin said the annual spot checks don't catch everyone. "They live in cars. They live on other peoples' floors. And those people do not get included in other peoples' counts.

"We have people calling us constantly, saying 'I need emergency shelter tonight,' " she said. With HEARTH usually at capacity, she gives callers a list of other options -- and they typically respond that they've called them all, and none have empty beds.

She said addressing the issue of homelessness requires the kind of cooperation among shelter providers, counseling organizations, public schools and higher education that HEARTH enjoys.

"The funding that we get from the government will always put a roof over our peoples' heads," she said. "But the quality of life for our families and children comes from the local community."

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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