The county housing office and three local human service agencies arecollaborating in an innovative program to ease homelessness in the county.
Through the program, Grassroots, Citizens Against Spousal Assault and the Community Action Council will be able to arrange federally subsidized housing for clients who are still receiving their support services.
The new process will allow a smoother transition for people moving from a shelter to a home and guarantees clients a federal housing subsidy when they successfully complete their work with the agency, say housing and agency officials.
Program organizers hope this arrangement will cut down on homeless clients leaving a shelter with no permanent place to go.
The program also lets the agencies directly issue housing certificates to their neediest clients, a step that cutsred tape and waiting lists. And the agencies will be able to directly pay rent money to landlords, eliminating the worry that skeptical landlords will turn down a rent application for a client with bad credit.
"It's the best thing that's happened to this county as far as a means of providing transitional shelter without a lot of operational costs," said Fran Price, executive director of CASA.
The programcoincides with the anticipated increase of federal housing certificates to be issued to Howard County in January.
Pending final approval by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, the county housing office will receive 22 additional Section 8 certificates.
The certificates entitle people who meet income requirements to have a portion of their monthly rent paid by the federal government.
Of the 22 new certificates, 12 are to be used for the homeless. Initially, Grassroots will receive two certificates, and CASA and Community Action Council will each get one.
The new program will be able to house between 12 and 25 families yearly once all 12 certificatesare distributed to the agencies, Vaughn said.
The program's intent is to provide the agencies' homeless clients with the opportunity to make the transition to self-sufficiency while receiving additional services offered by the agencies.
"The agencies are set up to provide support services to help a homeless person make the transition back to the mainstream," said Leonard Vaughn, county housing director.
"Our operation is geared to processing qualified people for housing subsidies. We don't have the abilities to provide support services in these special cases."
The new program also allows individuals most in need of federal housing subsidies to avoid the long waiting list for assistance. About 700 people are waiting for certificates in the Section 8 program, and the average wait is two years.
Those whoqualify for Section 8 contribute 30 percent of their monthly income toward rent, and the federal program pays a portion of their rent.
The ability of the agencies to directly issue certificates instead of going through the county is a unique aspect of the program, organizers say.
Grassroots is in effect actually going to be writing a check and paying the landlord rent, and the tenant will pay Grassroots.
Otherwise, even with a Section 8 certificate, it would be extremely difficult for a homeless person to find a landlord willing to accept it if the person had a bad credit record or little income.
For example, some women end up at Grassroots because their husbands have left them with no money and bad credit.
And many women at CASA wholeave abusive husbands come to the shelter with virtually nothing.
"If they come in with a big debt and a bad credit rating nobody will touch them," Ingram said.
"All they can hope to do is room with someone with the (Section 8) unit in someone else's name."
While the tenant is living in the Section 8 dwelling, the agency's existing staff will help in obtaining job training, budget management skills and appropriate counseling.
The agencies expect most tenants to stay 18 months. If clients still need financial help when they leave, the county housing office will issue them another certificate to find affordable housing.
To meet the definition of homeless for the Section 8 program, tenants must be involuntarily homeless because of eviction or circumstances beyond their control.
They also must meet separate guidelines established by the agencies. To be considered for the program at Grassroots, a prospective tenant must be a homeless resident of Howard County able to live in an unsupervised setting. The tenant also must be a former resident of Grassroots, alcohol and drug-free, willing to submit to drug testing and willing to pursue job training and education programs if appropriate.
The strict guidelinesare to make sure people don't take advantage of the program just to avoid the waiting list for a certificate.
"We're talking about people who are truly homeless," Vaughn said.
"We don't want people trying to circumvent the waiting list by trying to create an artificialhomeless situation."