The crisis in Philly school funding has sent hundreds of protesters into the streets and consumed thousands of reams of newsprint. Yet another funding crisis in Philadelphia — quietly distilled into a new fiscal plan over the past few months and approved without amendment by City Council last week — could prove equally devastating.
This off-the-radar disaster includes a 20 percent reduction in federal and state funding for things like homelessness prevention, basic housing repair, utility assistance, community development, rental assistance and rapid rehousing. In recent weeks, the organizations that stand between some of Philly’s most vulnerable residents and homelessness, joblessness or — in the case of the elderly — institutionalization have been learning how, exactly, they can expect to be affected in the fiscal year beginning July 1.
And the impact is dizzying. Thanks to a steep 17 percent cut to Philly’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding to $38.345 million — and due to the city’s decisions about how to mete out that pain — some programs will have to slash the number of people they can serve; others expect to close down altogether.
The result, service providers fear, could be an increase in evictions and even more pressure on already-overwhelmed homeless shelters.
“All of those safety nets for poor people are disappearing, and I think more and more people will turn to the homeless system as a refuge than ever before,” says Dainette Mintz, director of Philly’s Office of Supportive Housing. “Unfortunately, the homeless system is pretty much at full capacity. ... [It] can’t make up for the reductions in affordable housing and reductions in utility assistance.”
One of those safety nets is the Utility Emergency Services Fund (UESF). The organization uses its CDBG money to help extremely low-income Philly residents pay their utilities; those grants are often key to keeping residents in their homes. “We serve 5,000 families a year,” says UESF executive director John Rowe. “Not this year, though.”
UESF’s funding, already reduced last year, is being cut again — down $455,000 from fiscal 2008-11 — and Rowe says there can be only one outcome: 1,200 families will have their utilities shut off. “UESF is the last resort, so if we don’t help there is no help,” he says. Utility shutoffs, he says, are often followed by homelessness. And sheltering homeless families costs far more than utility assistance.
Alan Mathis, 57, of West Philly, knows how critical this service is. He receives federal disability income, but after his wife passed away, the funeral expenses sent him hurtling toward eviction. “I called everyone I could think of; I never got through to anyone,” he says. But UESF “helped me get things back on track.” A few months of rent and utility assistance and budget counseling, he says, have enabled him to stabilize his finances.
It’s a similar situation at Philadelphia Corporation for the Aging (PCA), which last year received $325,000 for its Senior Housing Assistance and Repair Program, providing stairway railings, intercoms and other critical safety upgrades that enable low-income seniors to stay in their homes. That funding has been totally eliminated. Holly Lange, senior vice president at PCA, says as a result the agency will provide repairs for 100 fewer people next year.
“We already have a waiting list of about 400 people, so the waiting list is just going to grow,” she says. Some of those people are also on the waiting list for the city’s Basic Systems Repair Program. But that list is even longer: It averages about 6,500 very low-income people, each waiting approximately three and a half years.
PCA — which serves about 15,000 people through senior centers and other services — receives much of its funding through the state lottery. So while it will cut its programs, it won’t disappear.
The same cannot be said for Philadelphia Neighborhood Housing Services (PNHS), which helps around 450 to 500 people each year. PNHS serves people who are wait-listed for the city’s repair program and those with no other means of getting assistance. Both of PNHS’ city funding line-items — $257,000 for loan assistance for homeowners who don’t qualify anywhere else and $150,000 for facade improvements — have been zeroed out.
Executive director Bernard Hawkins says PNHS’ facade-improvement program was unique in that it focused funding on one neighborhood at a time, aiming to turn back blight and effect stabilization. In the ’90s, PNHS went into Fern Rock, offering support for home-improvements while renovating 25 vacant properties. “The outcome is that the neighborhood was preserved. Property values when we started were in the $40,000 to $45,000 range, and now you’re probably looking at … double that.” Recently, PNHS was targeting Cobbs Creek — but projects there have been stopped in their tracks.
Hawkins, speaking before the plan passed, said PNHS — which has been serving Philly since 1975 — would not likely survive the decimation of its budget. He’s worried about the homeowners still waiting for assistance, in houses badly in need of repair. “If our funding is cut and we don’t exist anymore, right now I don’t know that there’s anyone else … to take our place. We’re the only ones in the city doing that right now, and those programs will go away.”
UESF is trying hard to fill the gaps — or the handful of gaps it can reach. It’s piloting a one-stop program for housing stabilization, combining case management with rental and utility assistance, energy-conservation advice, budget counseling and referrals. Recently, Rowe says, the pilot was able to help a family of six move out of the shelter system and into a home. Rowe is scrambling to raise funding to expand the program. But the gap in homelessness-prevention and rapid-rehousing monies in the city is yawning. July 1 marks the termination of a $21 million federal stimulus payout for such programs, which have helped thousands of Philadelphians in the last three years. There are no more federal homelessness-prevention dollars to be had; federal rapid-rehousing funding will total $1.2 million for the year ahead, Mintz says, resulting in “very much reduced” programming.
Before City Council approved the plan, a councilmember thought to ask Office of Housing and Community Development director Deborah McColloch: Was this really the best possible plan? Her answer: Given the circumstances, it’s the best the city could do.