Local news

SATURDAY, AUG. 7, 2010

Holding off homelessness

Stimulus keeps newly poor afloat

Federal stimulus funding not only helped Spokane weather the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, it changed one of the city’s leading social service agencies, which redirected its staff to save jobs and homes.

During the recession that began in 2007, many Spokane residents found themselves seeking financial help for the first time from nonprofit agencies already stretched to the limit providing help to the chronically poor.

In 2009, SNAP, the private, nonprofit social service agency, served nearly 50,000 people, a one-third increase over the previous year. Half of those served were new clients who had never sought assistance before.

At the same time, charities like SNAP saw their donations decline as individual and corporate supporters retrenched.

When a local hospital cut Carrie Emery’s hours working as a health unit coordinator from 34 to 28 a week, the 46-year-old single mom could no longer make ends meet.

When Emery, 46, turned to SNAP for energy assistance last winter, she received even more help than she had hoped for.

“They paid my rent for a couple of months and my Avista and water bill, as well as my car insurance,” Emery said. “It was really a blessing and helped me get on the right track again.”

Since then she has picked up some more hours at work and has paid off many of her debts.

Emery’s family was able to stay in its home because of Community Emergency Services, one of nine SNAP programs that are funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Signed into law in February 2009, the $787 billion stimulus package has provided tax cuts, extended unemployment benefits, created and saved jobs, improved infrastructure and provided thousands of Americans with education and health care, according to the White House.

So far, Washington state has received nearly $2.6 billion in stimulus funding, according to the federal Recovery Board, which was established to ensure the money is spent the way it was intended. Idaho has received more than $735 million.

“But for these funds people would be homeless,” said Dan Ruddell, human services manager for the city of Spokane. “The recovery, as weak as it is, would be much weaker.”

Mike and Dawn Payton count themselves among Spokane residents who would have lost their homes if not for stimulus funding.

After Mike, who works in information technology, became unemployed because of a back injury, the family of six started slipping deeper into debt trying to survive on unemployment compensation.

For the first time in their lives, the Paytons asked for and received social services, including rental assistance through the stimulus program Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing, also called Moving Forward.

Under the program, Spokane will receive $1.5 million in Department of Housing and Urban Development funds over three years to keep the newly poor in their homes. So far the program has kept 248 people, referred by SNAP, Catholic Charities, Volunteers of America or the Spokane Low Income Housing Coalition, out of homelessness.

“It meant the difference between us staying in our home or living in a hotel or out in our truck,” said Payton, who added that Moving Forward provided him with the time he needed to recover from surgery before going back to work.

Jennifer Martin, SNAP homeless coordinator, said there are more people eligible for the emergency assistance than there is money to help them. So many, in fact, that her office could have “spent out” the entire three-year homeless prevention program in less than a year.

“In July alone, we spent $72,000, mostly on rental assistance,” Martin said.

She stressed that her clients are newly poor trying to stay in their homes, not the chronically homeless. At least 60 percent of her office’s clients are collecting unemployment compensation. Others have lost their businesses or had their work hours reduced. Martin’s office has had to do triage, selecting recipients who have the best chance to return to economic stability.

Other stimulus funding has provided financial counseling, tax assistance, business development loans and mortgage modification. SNAP continues to provide record numbers of homeowners with foreclosure counseling.

SNAP’s largest program under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is for weatherization – more than $5 million through June 2011.

The program made 444 homes more energy efficient in 2009 and will surpass that number in 2010, said SNAP spokesman Ron Hardin, who added that the work is helping keep local contractors in business during the construction downturn.

“It’s been a godsend to us,” said Jim Womble, director of sales at Cascade Windows. “It’s been what’s carrying us through the recession.”

In years past, Womble said, more than 80 percent of the window manufacturer’s business has been in new construction; now it’s about 50 percent replacement.

“I can’t say (stimulus funding) has created jobs, but it kept us from losing jobs,” Womble said.

Dan Jordan, SNAP’s director of community services, said his agency has used stimulus dollars in the best way to benefit the vulnerable in the community.

“The result is a significant safety net that has reduced homelessness, saved many from foreclosure and provided efficient living units that save energy and money,” Jordan said.

Because of the stimulus act, many people have been able to hang on while the economy slowly recovers.

“Sometimes you stimulate hope,” Jordan said.

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