- Special Projects
Jonathon Berliner doesn’t know what to do. His organization, Gregory House Programs, just lost a $335,489 federal grant that the nonprofit has relied on for over a decade to provide temporary housing to homeless people suffering from HIV/AIDS in Honolulu.
One of the program’s residents has cancer, and has been rejected from nursing homes in part because of his AIDS. He’s getting frail, Berliner said, and doesn’t have anywhere else to go.
In less than four months, Berliner needs to come up with enough money to continue to house him and 14 other people who are currently staying at the Honolulu shelter.
Gregory House Programs is one of seven nonprofits left searching for funding after a key federal program supporting homelessness initiatives declined to approve $1.3 million in grant renewals last week.
Overall, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department slashed over half a million dollars for Honolulu’s Continuum of Care program participants even though Hawaii has the worst rate of homelessness in the nation.
While the cutback is relatively small — a 5 percent decrease from $9.7 million last year to $9.2 million this year — HUD estimates the expiration of funds will remove funding for 465 homeless people who are currently relying on services.
At least one shelter has already stopped accepting new people despite having empty beds.
“Here we’re in this war to prevent homelessness and decisions are being made that are actually adding more homelessness.” — Jonathan Berliner, Gregory House Programs
Michael Ullman, a volunteer coordinator at the National Homelessness Information Project, said he thinks Hawaii policymakers should consider advocating to change HUD’s formula for providing homelessness services, something U.S. Rep. Scott Peters from San Diego has been working on for years.
Ullman recently completed an analysis of HUD’s Continuum of Care funding, determining that on average, the program provides states with $2,822 per homeless person.
But funding for Hawaii tends to be disproportionately low despite the state’s homelessness crisis, which spurred Gov. David Ige to declare a state of emergency last fall. This year’s funding provides about $1,492 per homeless person in Hawaii, based on an estimate of the state’s homeless population from January 2015.
Ryan Okahara, who works at the Honolulu office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said there was more competition this year for Continuum of Care funding than the department has ever seen before.
Applications were reviewed at the department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., and scores will be made available later this month. In general, Okahara said the federal agency prioritized programs that sought to provide permanent housing, rather than temporary housing.
Ullman said Honolulu has a high ratio of temporary shelter beds compared to permanent housing units available for homeless people, and thinks the city’s nonprofits should be more strategic in applying for funding.
“They lost money because they tried to get renewal funding for projects that weren’t permanent housing projects,” he explained. “They need to get organized because the next application is coming up in the next few months.”
Not every homeless provider has been left scrambling after last week’s announcement.
Scott Ishikawa, a spokesman for Catholic Charities Hawaii, said the changes affect the nonprofit’s 44-unit transitional shelter, but that the organization anticipated the loss of funding and is planning to use other state and federal funds to make up for the deficit.
That’s not the case with Ho`omau Ke Ola, a nonprofit in Waianae that serves homeless people with substance abuse. The organization’s current grant lapsed April 30, and now the nonprofit is struggling to figure out how to continue to shelter three people previously funded by HUD.
“We have no alternative funding,” said program director Mona Madeira. “We can’t kick them out, that’s crazy, they’re already in our services, but right now we’re not accepting any more.”
Both Berliner and Madeira described the cuts as “devastating.”
“It’s just really kind of shocking that decisions like this can be made from Washington, D.C.,” Berliner said. “Here we’re in this war to prevent homelessness and decisions are being made that are actually adding more homelessness.”
Last year, HUD advised nonprofits that only 85 percent of renewal grants for the Continuum of Care program would be guaranteed. The rest of the funding would be evaluated on a competitive basis.
Applications submitted for the most recent funding cycle were rated on a 100-point scale that took into account the types of projects and the effectiveness of the local Continuum of Care program. For example, a permanent housing program would receive 10 points while a transitional housing program would receive just 3 points.
The formula also took into account rankings by Partners in Care, a coalition of homeless service providers in Honolulu who applied for the Continuum of Care funding on behalf of local nonprofits. HUD informed local organizations last year that funding priority would be given to those nonprofits that emphasize Housing First, a philosophy of housing people before giving them wraparound services.
Still, Okahara said he hesitates to tell every homeless services provider to switch to Housing First.
“If you look at it from a national perspective we know the answer is permanent supportive housing and Housing First is the right way to go,” Okahara said. “But in Hawaii where it’s high cost and we have very limited housing supply, period, much less housing supply for permanent supportive housing, it’s very hard … to sit here and say everybody switch to just permanent supportive housing particularly when the cost of doing so is really expensive in Hawaii compared to running a shelter, per se.”
He said the state, city and private sector may be able to help fill some of the funding gaps. There’s also another HUD funding cycle coming up this summer, but the federal agency will continue to prioritize permanent housing as well as take into account program performance measures.
Connie Mitchell, director of the Institute for Human Services, the state’s largest homeless shelter, said in an emailed statement that she understands HUD’s priorities but worries about the immediate impact.
“We interpret the cuts as a clear indication of HUD’s expectation that homeless systems need to focus on promoting access to help more quickly and making permanent housing the priority,” she wrote. “But the cuts are tragically impacting special populations the most: folks dealing with substance abuse, mental illness and HIV-AIDS.”
“The cuts are tragically impacting special populations the most: folks dealing with substance abuse, mental illness and HIV-AIDS.” — Connie Mitchell, Institute for Human Services
IHS lost about $285,000 for its rapid rehousing program and is also looking for alternative funding once the existing grant money runs out.
Berliner said he had known this year’s competition would focus more on Housing First programs, but “never would have thought that something like this could just happen.”
While Gregory House Programs does provide rental subsidies to help people remain housed, he said many of the people who participate in its transitional housing program are mentally ill or struggle with substance abuse. He’s worried that the emphasis on permanent housing doesn’t consider the needs of that population.
“It would be easy for me to say we’ll just switch out to permanent housing,” he said. “One group of people should not be a group that is just considered throwaway people because they can’t meet a certain threshold of being able to present themselves to a prospective landlord.”
Marc Gannon, chair of Partners in Care, wasn’t available for an interview Monday but issued the following statement:
“We are working actively with the affected organizations to ensure that we are able to continue serving individuals and families experiencing homelessness,” he said. “PIC is collaborating with service providers and government partners to realign available resources to support programs that are most critical in our continuum.”
You can read the list of grants that weren’t renewed below: