Friday, November 04, 2011

In Praise of Government Employees

HUD Staff Worry About a Rise in Homelessness

In the past, when government cut housing or infrastructure, there has always been an increase in funding for hunger and emergency shelter services to offset.  The thinking was that if there is a cut to human services or mainstream programs more people will need emergency services.  In 2011 and 2012, this is not happening and funding for emergency services are at level funding or facing dramatic cuts.  While poverty is rising in the suburbs, hunger in the suburbs is on the rise, the foreclosure crisis has not abated, and we still have a high unemployment rate in Northeast Ohio, the government is cutting back.  The proposed budget has some significant cuts to public housing, vouchers, FEMA emergency food and shelter, development block grant (which can be used for housing services), HOME dollars and on and on and on.  These two trends in rising need and decreasing budgets are dangerous for Cleveland.  The 2009 stimulus dollars are going to expire in the middle of 2012, and we already saw a giant increase in shelter for families this last summer. Will we begin turning away children from shelter in the summer of 2012?  Will we be able to serve the overflow populations over the next two winters?

With all this as the backdrop, I was able to visit senor staff at HUD Washington to talk about issues that have an impact on homeless people.  The big concern is the implementation of the funding and rules changes with regard to federal allocation of HUD homeless dollars known as HEARTH (formerly McKinney Vento).  In listening to the Tea Party and even some in the Occupy Movement there is a distorted picture of government and government employees.  There is a hostility and a sector of our society who believe that government workers are living high on the hog and milking our tax dollars while doing nothing.  From Cleveland it can look as though HUD employees in Washington just don't understand.  All these new rules are going to destabilize the shelters in a time of extreme need.  We see that there does not seem to be much coordination between the homeless veterans initiatives and the homeless priorities funded by HUD.  The planning activities seem to propose lofty goals in creating permanent supportive housing for disabled individuals while we are being overwhelmed with families demanding help.  But when meeting with these "government workers" face to face, it is a very different story.

They have a genuine concern for the rise in homelessness, and they care about the stress being placed on emergency shelters in all communities.  They seem to feel powerless as HUD employees to do much because of the demands of Congress and the current political environment.  Congress passed these changes four years ago in the way HUD funds the shelters and housing programs directed at homeless people, but never passed the appropriations level to implement the goals contained in the legislation.  This puts HUD staff between a rock and a hard place.  They have these new regulations, but not enough money for the planning or the increase in administrative support to implement these changes.  They are going forward in the next two weeks with new regulations on emergency solutions funding and the definition of homelessness.  These rules will go into place while still receiving public comment.  But the rules for distributing the bulk of the homeless dollars are stuck in the pipeline.

The HUD staff are troubled that there will only be $60 million for new projects to be spread out across the United States.  All the other HUD homeless dollars will go to renew existing programs.  HUD staff want to improve the outcomes so that the limited dollars go to provide the best possible service to the millions of homeless households.  When you look these people in the eyes, the bottom line is that they do not want harm to befall the population.  They understand that the decisions made in Washington can have an impact on the shelter beds in Kalamazoo, Kansas City, and Culver City.  They care that people still do freeze to death while sleeping outside in the United States in places like Milwaukee, Memphis and Manhattan.  These people have risen through the ranks of bureaucracy because they have a skill and can balance the needs of the executive and legislative branches of government.  They see the big picture and struggle with state governments that ignore the problem and local communities which try to use their homeless dollars for other politically popular programs.  They care and realize that sometimes HUD rules make it difficult to provide assistance, such as the Cleveland policy of forcing outreach workers to get a notarized statement verifying homelessness for those living outside.  They understand that we are all working on ending homelessness, and that government is not always the best partner.

Despite what you hear from protestors, most government employees care and do their job with a great deal of skill and compassion.  There are some that have to go, but the level of corruption and ineptitude is minimal.  Despite having to work in one of the ugliest buildings in Washington and having to undergo extreme security measures making it difficult to hear from the public, the HUD staff want to help and are concerned about the rise in poverty and homelessness.  If we could figure out a way to get politics out of the way, I have faith that these guys could figure out a way for America to significantly reduce homelessness.

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