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Homeless prevention program helps pay the bills

HOLIDAY — None of the lights worked when two boys got home from school Wednesday. Their mother, Shalonda Curry, owed $300 on a past-due power bill and couldn't find the money to pay Progress Energy by the shut-off date.

So Curry, a former nursing assistant who has been looking for a job for months, was rushing around Thursday, a plastic file filled with phone numbers and other documents in hand, hoping that someone could help her with the power bill, which, with new charges, now totals $600.

"It's kind of embarrassing to tell my kids," said Curry, 30.

Turns out there is a source of government money aimed at people in situations like Curry's. Pasco County received nearly $1.1 million in federal homeless prevention funds to help with those bills — rent and power, for instance — that if left unpaid could put a family out on the streets.

But, already, officials are having a hard time getting a handle on the demand. Less than a month into the program, the county's human services division is booked up with appointments.

Call today, and you might wait three weeks to meet with a social worker — just to figure out if you qualify for the money. If the county decides you do qualify, it might be at least 30 days before officials cut a check to the landlord or utility company.

Extreme emergency cases — those whose power has been shut off, or those with a court-issued three-day eviction notice — are routed to the Salvation Army, which got about $50,000 of the money to disburse and can do so more quickly than the county.

Though the program hasn't had much time to work out the kinks, that early wait is a red flag for some of those who work on the front lines of homelessness in the county.

They are worried that a lack of manpower — the county has only three social workers and is hiring a fourth — plus bureaucratic delays in sending checks will mean that the money won't go out nearly fast enough.

"I think it's a disaster in process," said the Rev. Dan Campbell, head of the Homeless Coalition of Pasco County. He said governments are typically inefficient when it comes to programs like these.

"Here are people in tremendous need, and money's available that you can't get to them," he said.

County officials say that so far landlords and utility companies have been willing to work with them. Landlords, in particular, can avoid costly eviction proceedings if they know government money may help cover the bill.

But the problem is that the federal money is very carefully targeted — and many of those waiting in line for help with their past-due bills wouldn't be considered emergencies, said Eugene Williams, project supervisor for community development in Pasco County.

"The problem is, that it's for at-risk of being homeless, and not just everybody who has a past due," he said.

Williams said there are no hard and fast rules for qualifying for the money though county officials are trying to put together a list that would clarify who is considered the most likely candidate for the emergency money.

Each person has to meet with a social worker not only to show why he needs the money — there are maximum income and rent requirements — but also to show how he can stay in his house the next month. One example? Somebody who is waiting on his first unemployment check.

It can be a challenge: Reserving the money for the neediest but at the same time realizing, as Williams put it, "We don't just want to pay somebody's rent and the next month they can't pay it."

The county has given out about $10,000 and the Salvation Army about $9,000 through the program, said Christina Cazanave, a coordinator with the homeless coalition.

Funding for the so-called Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing program comes from the nearly $800 billion economic recovery bill that Congress passed in February. Pasco County Human Services got $450,000, and the rest was divided among Salvation Army, Pasco Housing Authority, Youth and Family Alternatives and BayCare Health.

Adey Reyes, director of the county's community services, acknowledged the program might not move as quickly as some would like but said it came with strict federal requirements.

"Rapid within the government concept of rapid," she said.

Campbell, the coalition president who also heads up Joining Hands Community Mission, a one-stop homeless center in Holiday, said that the slow movement of money from the program is compounded by a lack of emergency housing in the county. He's hoping to lobby Pasco officials to use some of the federal money to pay for motel vouchers for families that suddenly lose their homes.

Meanwhile, he points to people like Curry as an example of how the program may end up working.

Curry, the Holiday single mother of two who owes $600 to Progress Energy, showed up on Monday at Salvation Army for help with her bill.

All she got that day was an appointment for Nov. 19. Her power was cut off two days later.

So she arrived at Joining Hands on Thursday after hearing about the group from a church. Campbell met with Curry then went over to the Salvation Army to talk with workers there about her case.

Turned out Curry now qualified as a true emergency since her power was already off. Campbell said she was approved for financial help, and her power will be turned back on.

What comes the next month is unclear, Curry acknowledged.

"God willing," she said, "I'll have a job by then."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

NEED HELP?

Bill payment assistance

To contact Pasco County Human Services for bill assistance, call (727) 834-3297 in west Pasco or (352) 521-5173 in east Pasco.

Even before the federal homeless prevention program started, Pasco County had seen a huge spike in requests for help. Over a 12-month period ending in July, requests for emergency shelter doubled to more than 9,000 and those seeking assistance with electricity and water bills more than doubled to nearly 12,700 families.

Homeless prevention program helps pay the bills 10/29/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 29, 2009 10:24pm]
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