Many seek help to avoid eviction
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Eight months ago, when Westmoreland County officials heralded a nearly $2.2 million federal initiative to rescue residents on the brink of eviction, they did not know what to expect.
How great was the need?
They were nearly bowled over. By the end of May, the program had served 975 people in 413 struggling households, paying overdue rent, covering security deposits, picking up utility bills and holding workshops on budgeting, bank accounts and jobs.
The initiative, the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, is ahead of schedule on spending. The three local agencies that distribute aid have been deluged with phone calls. One agency, Westmoreland Community Action, recently suspended new applications to focus on its current caseload.
"We just didn't know that it was this big," said Terri Yurcisin, deputy director of the county Department of Planning and Development. "There is that group of people who would be homeless if not for this funding."
The program is still accepting applications through the other agencies, and officials urge Westmoreland County residents who need housing help to call the toll-free hot line, 1-800-222-8848.
The initiative, formed in November, is administered by the county Department of Planning and Development and the Redevelopment Authority of the County of Westmoreland.
Three local agencies provide services directly: The Private Industry Council of Westmoreland/Fayette Inc., Westmoreland Community Action and Westmoreland County Housing Authority.
The program was conceived as temporary. Most of the funding came through a $1.8 million federal grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as the stimulus bill. Additional funding of nearly $390,000 in federal money came through the state.
Under federal requirements, the county must spend 60 percent of the funds in two years and the full amount in three, a guideline it is slightly outpacing; the program spent about $800,000 by mid-June. If that rate continues, three years of the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program could cost more than $4 million.
But after an initial burst, call volume has started to dwindle, said Shujuane Martin, a project supervisor for the Private Industry Council.
Westmoreland Community Action anticipates reopening applications soon, said Tay Waltenbaugh, the agency's CEO.
County residents may be eligible for assistance through the program if they have incomes at or below 50 percent of the local median income -- $31,500 for a family of four -- and are at immediate risk of becoming homeless.
After a consultation with a caseworker, clients may receive hotel vouchers; help paying rent, utility bills, security deposits, utility deposits and moving costs; and workshops and counseling about financial skills.
Assistance is capped after 18 months. The program cannot provide assistance paying mortgages, overdue credit card bills, car loans or non-housing costs such as food and clothing.
According to a county news release, the three agencies and the toll-free line have recorded nearly 200 calls for help each week.
Ms. Yurcisin said the unexpected call volume hinted at a quiet epidemic.
"I do think that a large part of it is that we don't know that there are people out there who are struggling," she said.
Ms. Martin listed several success stories from the program:
A man with three children had exhausted unemployment assistance after getting laid off. With the program's help, he caught up with his rent and utilities and started a successful business with his wife.
A woman who paid her rent by working part time and by using child-support payments from her ex-husband fell behind on her payments after his paychecks were delayed during last year's state budget impasse. She and her two children faced eviction, but with the help of the homelessness prevention program, she was able to catch up on her rent.
A young man whose wife had left him and their two young children called the program when he was facing eviction and utility shutoff. He could not find a job and day care that worked together. The program helped him with rent and utility payments, and after attending one of the initiative's workshops, he found a job that worked with his child-care arrangements.
Mr. Waltenbaugh said the program also provides an opportunity to refer needy clients to other services.
"Typically, your rent and utilities aren't your only issue," he said, noting that his agency has helped people find transportation, day care and employment training.
Ms. Martin said the financial literacy and job workshops are an important component of the program, providing clients with necessary skills.
First Published July 29, 2010 5:46 am