Homeless advocates seek restoration of funding

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HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania should restore millions in funds that have been cut in recent years from the state's Homeless Assistance Program, several homeless advocates and policy experts testified today.

HAP funds have dwindled from about $25 million in 2008 to $19.5 million this year; the funds are proposed to decline further next year to $18.5, according to testimony at a House Democratic Policy Committee Hearing on homelessness.

"Getting that even back up to $25 million would be very significant," said Elizabeth Hersh, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania.

"As public funds decrease, so too does our ability to serve homeless women," said Lois Mufuka Martin, executive director of Bethlehem Haven, a Pittsburgh shelter.

The funds are even more critical now in light of the elimination of General Assistance, a program that ended last year and provided about $200 in monthly assistance to more than 60,000 disabled or sick unemployed adults without dependent children, domestic violence survivors and adults participating in drug and alcohol treatment programs.

"When they stopped General Assistance, it did hurt," said Pat Boyer, a disabled 57-year-old formerly homeless woman who testified before the committee. The $205 she received every month helped her pay her $62 in monthly rent at the YWCA and helped her buy personal hygiene items such as soap.

More than 34,000 Pennsylvanians spent at least one night in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program last year, testified Joseph Willard, vice president for policy at People's Emergency Center, an agency for homeless women and children in Philadelphia. Additionally, an estimated 235,000 people statewide are living "doubled up" with friends or family - not in a shelter, but esentially on the brink of homelessness.

The state education system identified 18,500 students as being homeless in 2011, Mr. Willard testified.

Pittsburgh's Community Human Services Corporation uses HAP funds to aid clients in rental assistance, utility assistance, to help pay for hotel rooms if there is no shelter space, and other purposes, said Mac McMahon, director of homeless assistance programs for that agency. Those funds are critical to social service agencies like his, said Mr. McMahon, as they are much more flexible than federal funds.

"It's part of the safety net," said Mr. McMahon.

A spokesperson from the state's Department of Public Welfare could not be reached for comment.

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Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com, 1-717-787-4254 and on Twitter: @KateGiammarise.


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