The imperative question in disbursing emergency federal assistance for people at risk is this: Would this person or family be homeless if not for this assistance? Unfortunately, the inquiry is not being asked often enough or quickly enough for the Pasco County people close to being out on the street.
Demand is exceeding county and private social agencies' ability to process applications from people trying to qualify for a small share of the $1.1 million in homeless prevention funds earmarked for Pasco County under the U.S. economic recovery legislation adopted by Congress in February. The money is for emergency rent and utility payments for people threatened with eviction, already homeless or victims of domestic violence.
There is a three-week delay just to get an appointment at the county human services division and then another 30-day wait for a landlord to receive a check after a tenant qualifies for assistance. Nearly a month into the program, only $19,000 had been distributed by the county and the Salvation Army.
And this is called a rapid rehousing program?
The number of people seeking help shouldn't come as a surprise. Over a 12-month period ending in July, requests for emergency shelter doubled to more than 9,000 in Pasco County; those seeking assistance with electricity and water bills grew nearly 150 percent to nearly 12,700 families. Likewise, the Pasco School District projects helping as many as 5,000 children deemed homeless or in transition this school year.
A federally mandated homeless survey nearly 10 months ago calculated 4,527 people as homeless on any given day, an 11 percent increase over the previous year, but still a suspect number because the survey counted only 181 children as homeless, compared to 1,400 in 2008.
While the actual number is a moving target, nobody disputes rising demand for social services in a county with a jobless rate above the state and national average and thousands of foreclosure cases, two-thirds of which are primary residences.
Unfortunately, the influx of federal money — $450,000 to Pasco County and the rest divided among five social groups — coincided with the Oct. 1 start of the new county budget in which commissioners eliminated a social worker position in its human services department. That left the county with a reduced staff to answer calls for help that averaged 900 each week during 2008-09.
Rules state 5 percent of the federal allocation can be use to administer the aid, so the county does have money available for staffing to make sure the program is used effectively and efficiently.
That certainly is not the case now. A seven-week wait for assistance shouldn't meet anybody's definition of emergency help.