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story.lead_photo.caption Jerry McCain describes Dec. 12 his efforts to keep his campground, located near the 7 Hills Homeless Center in Fayetteville, and the immediate surrounding area clean. - Photo by David Gottschalk

The federal government is sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to Northwest Arkansas groups fighting homelessness.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last week announced about $2 billion in grants to thousands of homeless assistance organizations around the country. About $376,000 will go to the Northwest Arkansas Continuum of Care, the city of Fayetteville and Havenwood in Bentonville.

Web watch

The Northwest Arkansas Continuum of Care seeks volunteers for its 24-hour homelessness survey throughout the area Jan. 25 and Jan. 26. More information is available at nwacoc.com/volunteer

Source: NWA Continuum of Care

The money likely will help achieve relatively modest goals, helping to house several dozen people who don't have safe or adequate shelter and bringing on a couple more full-time employees to manage those kinds of cases, based on estimates from leaders of the groups. The amount's down slightly from that awarded last year and the year before.

Nonetheless the money is critically important for the region's push to shelter all who need it, said Angela Belford, chairwoman of the Continuum's board. The Continuum is an umbrella organization including Fayetteville, Havenwood, 7 Hills Homeless Center and several other public and nonprofit groups and aims to coordinate and streamline their work to end homelessness.

A biannual survey in January 2017 from the University of Arkansas counted almost 3,000 people in Benton and Washington counties who were staying in shelters, doubling up with others, on the streets or in other unstable housing situations within a 24-hour period.

That figure included more than 1,500 school-age children and has risen with each survey since the first was done in 2007.

The $2 billion is slightly higher than the past several years and comes as the Trump administration moves to curb several public housing and rent voucher programs, according to The Associated Press. HUD Secretary Ben Carson has said he doesn't want people to become dependent on the help. The administration has proposed eliminating an agency that coordinates the federal response to homelessness.

"I certainly think the competition for these funds will continue to increase, and relying on federal funds to support efforts for housing and programming is going to continue to present providers even greater challenges," Kevin Fitzpatrick, a sociology professor who organized the university homeless count, said in an email. Agencies in Little Rock received less grant money as well, he said.

Belford said HUD didn't grant requests from Fayetteville's Genesis Church and Salvation Army shelter for tens of thousands of dollars toward rapid rehousing programs, which essentially get people off the streets or out of shelters as quickly as possible by helping with deposits and rents for a short time.

That was disappointing news, she said. But in a more hopeful sign, the amount designated for Northwest Arkansas and the Continuum is still $140,000 more than it was in 2014. Belford credited Continuum members' work to better connect with each other and keep track of clients with especially urgent needs.

The bulk of the latest HUD grants, about $300,000, will go to Fayetteville's Hearth program, which helps cover transitional housing for people who are homeless for up to two years and longer-lasting supportive housing for families that include someone with a disability. The housing programs can also provide work skills training and other support.

Fayetteville has helped 150 people, most of them children, since it took on the program in 7 Hills's stead about two years ago, Fayetteville community resources director Yolanda Fields said.

"I think we're doing way better now than we were at that time," Fields said, noting the city had to learn as it went. The city chips in about $90,000 annually as a match for the HUD grants and hired two case workers for the job. Fields plans to add another worker and possibly a fourth to make sure all of the grant money gets spent on as many qualifying people as possible.

Hearth is one among many community development programs the city offers, including weatherization and household repairs for low-income homeowners, a pet food bank, transportation assistance and grants for local nonprofits.

"We're committed to this," Fields said of the Hearth program. "The need is here."

Census estimates for 2016 found tens of thousands of low-income households in Northwest Arkansas live in homes or apartments that cost more than 30 percent of their income, a conventional definition of unaffordable housing used by federal agencies.

Another $43,000 from HUD is designated for Havenwood, a transitional shelter for single mothers and their children. Executive director Debbie Martin said the money won't be restricted to Havenwood, instead paying for rapid rehousing for families that connect with a Continuum member anywhere in Northwest Arkansas.

"This is a grant for the community at large," Martin said. In a typical case, the grants might cover an apartment's deposit and a shrinking portion of its rent for several months. In other cases the money could cover health insurance or food, allowing the family to focus on finding a place to stay.

This kind of program is geared toward families that lose their homes from some one-off event, like a severe illness or job loss, rather than those that are chronically homeless, Martin said. She said the $43,000 could help 15 or 20 families in all, depending on their circumstances.

The last grant, about $31,000, goes to the Continuum overall. Belford said she hopes to set the money aside for the salary of a future full-time Continuum employee. The group totally relies on volunteers and grants.

"Right now we run on almost no budget thanks to the generosity of all the organizations and the board members that give so freely of their time," Belford said. "It has to be someone's full-time job to wake up every morning and solve homelessness."

In the meantime, Belford is looking for volunteers for the Continuum's homeless count on Jan. 25. The Continuum bumped up the survey a year in order to make it an annual event.

NW News on 01/18/2018

Print Headline: NWA earns housing grants

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