Loss of funding threatens Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services program

Laurel Leader

Eugene Wood met his fiancée, Jimekiah Bell, four years ago at a seasonal homeless shelter. The couple and their young children spent a couple of years drifting from shelters to hotels to the streets.

Finally, in August 2016, they moved into a Laurel apartment through Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services’ permanent supportive housing program. When mold in the apartment upset one of their children’s chronic bronchitis, LARS moved them into a townhouse.

Now Wood is working as a barber; Bell is working in retail and completing her bachelor’s degree; their oldest children are in school; and the couple is saving for a car to make transportation easier for their family of seven.

But LARS faces the loss of tens of thousands of dollars in annual state funding after officials informed the group that clients like Wood and Bell may no longer be eligible for a key program.

LARS learned last fall that individuals and families in its permanent supportive housing program, which is designed to combat chronic homelessness, are ineligible to receive funds through the state’s Rental Allowance Program (RAP). The loss of those dollars – which the nonprofit estimated would be about $50,000 this year – could threaten the number of households LARS is able to sponsor.

Leah Paley, executive director of LARS, said officials from the Prince George’s County Department of Social Services and the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development informed her that RAP funding is intended only for emergency situations. Permanent supportive housing clients are not at risk of homelessness, she was toldaid they told her, and therefore not eligible.

“RAP is a short-term emergency assistance program that by law is used to assist people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless,” Sara Luell, the director of communications for DHCD, wrote in an e-mail. “While RAP may be used to help facilitate the initial placement in permanent supportive housing, once someone is placed they are no longer homeless.”

Permanent supportive housing is a federal program and eligible individuals must meet the strict qualifications of chronic homelessness, as well as have a disability. LARS has participated in the program for nine years and now supports 22 households – four families, one couple and 17 individuals. Each household is assigned a caseworker who meets with them weekly to address other issues like health care, substance abuse and transportation. Participants are encouraged to contribute to savings accounts and hopefully transition out of the program into other stable housing in the future.

“We’re housing the most vulnerable and we’re focusing on meeting their basic needs first,” Paley said.

Though LARS receives funds from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to lease those 22 units, those federal dollars do not cover the full cost of the program, Paley said. In 2017, the leasing costs for LARS totaled about $345,000 annually, while it received $264,394 in HUD funds to pay rent and utilities – a gap of about $80,000. It had been using state RAP funding to help meet the difference. RAP money is allocated on a monthly basis for specific eligible households and varies based on several factors, but LARS said it received about $35,000 in fiscal year 2017 and $60,000 in fiscal year 2016.

LARS and it supporters are now scrambling to identify either a way to maintain RAP funding or another stable funding source. Del. Ben Barnes (D- Dist. 21) introduced legislation in the General Assembly last month that would prevent the state from excluding federal permanent supportive housing program participants from the state rental allowance program.

That bill, House Bill 933, had a committee hearing on Feb. 20. No opponents testified against it and the state DHCD said it has no position on the bill, but Paley and Barnes said they were told the department did raise some reservations about the bill with the subcommittee assigned to review it.

LARS is slated to receive an increase in federal funding from HUD in 2018. That increase, paired with dollars from the Maryland Energy Assistance Program, will leave LARS this year with a gap of about $35,000 between the cost of leasing the 22 units in the permanent housing program and dedicated funding for it, Paley said. She hopes the 22 households can be maintained, but that for now, LARS has had to redirect funds from its crisis center to cover rental costs, leaving families who visit the crisis center with fewer resources to access.

As LARS works to figure out the funding gap, Wood said he is grateful to the organization for all they have done for him, his fiancée and their five children.

“They have been one of the best blessings we have gotten in our entire lives,” Wood said. “If it wasn’t for LARS, I don’t know where we’d be.”

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