In crafting a budget, lawmakers must remember the homeless

We are once again at that point in the year when Pennsylvania’s Governor and legislators are laboring to finalize a budget for the new fiscal year. While there are many opinions across the Commonwealth on the priorities they should have in completing that task, I doubt it is one for which many of us would actually want to have responsibility. To be fair, balancing, amidst many fiercely competing interests, over $31 billion in revenue and expenses on thousands of lines in the Commonwealth’s budget is a job most of us would find extremely difficult even if there was general consensus on the priorities that should prevail. And as we are all aware, there is no such agreement when it comes to the state budget.

Nevertheless, I want to speak, among the sea of voices, in behalf of one line in the budget, the Homeless Assistance Program or HAP. Although not well known to the general public, HAP funding is designed to assist the most vulnerable in Pennsylvania and has helped Lancaster County, in particular, achieve very impressive success in reducing homelessness here in recent years. In the context of the state’s budget, it is not a large amount of money; this year’s HAP funding of $13.5 million represented less than one hundredth of one percent of its total budget and that level was 19% less than what was allocated for HAP in 2010-2011. In spite of the comparatively small and declining amount of funding, however, some have proposed that it be reduced by still another 15% in the new fiscal year.

To some, homelessness may seem strangely out of place in Lancaster County. After all, our local economy is typically stronger than in most other Pennsylvania communities while our unemployment rate is usually lower. Isn’t homelessness a big city problem or one much more common in poor communities?

The truth, however, is that on any given day in Lancaster City and across the County, hundreds of people and their children experience the misery of homelessness and the deep instability it creates in their lives. In January of this year, for example, 321 were living in emergency shelters in the County, on the street or in vehicles. As many would expect, some of these individuals have problems with mental illness and/or substance abuse. However, an increasing number do not. Instead they work hard at lower paying jobs that leave them on a financial tight rope where Lancaster’s high rental rates relative to its lower than average wages consume too much of their income. And when a temporary reduction in their work hours, an unexpected health problem or something as simple as a car repair bill befalls them, they can fall off that tight rope and lose their housing. It may be surprising to some but it is certainly very telling that court issued evictions from rental housing in Lancaster County increased 76% between 1995 and 2015.

Some very good news, however, is that the Lancaster County Coalition to End Homelessness, a collaboration of over 100 County non-profit social service providers, for profit businesses, churches and government agencies established in 2008, has coordinated efforts that have significantly reduced homelessness here. For example, the 321 people in shelters and on the streets in January 2017 represented a 52% reduction from the 666 in the same position in 2009. And in 2014, Lancaster County became one of just four in the entire nation to meet the federal government’s standards for having ended veteran homelessness. While meeting this standard does not mean there will never be another veteran experience homelessness in Lancaster again, it does mean the County now has the capacity to respond quickly to those who do, provide services and help them return to permanent housing within30 days. Not content with having met this mark alone, the Coalition continues working to ensure it has the same capacity for all groups of individuals and families.

Lancaster’s Coalition to End Homelessness is not a state or federal government agency. But it has achieved success in part because it has made highly effective use of government funds. Of the $13.5 million the state allocated for HAP in 16-17, Lancaster’s Coalition received $773,000 which it in turn used to obtain an additional $2 million in federal government funding to combat homelessness here. State and federal government support combined with private funds donated by generous Lancaster individuals, businesses, churches and foundations as well as United Way have together made it possible for our County to achieve nationally recognized success in reducing homelessness. Further cuts in HAP funding on top of the 19% reduction that occurred between 10-11 and 16-17 would jeopardize the progress Lancaster’s private sector – government partnership has made in recent years and could easily lead to an increase in homelessness here.

Even with our state’s budget challenges, it is difficult to see how the Commonwealth cannot afford to at least maintain support at its 2016 – 17 funding level for Pennsylvania communities wanting to assist people living on their streets. Homelessness is a miserable and damaging experience for anyone and it can be a blight on a community as well. In his 2016 best-selling book, Evicted, Matthew Desmond wrote that indifference to basic human needs such as a place to live cannot be justified by any “American value, moral code, ethical principle, peace of scripture or holy teaching.” No community should be content to let people live on its streets and to be sure, it is hard to imagine Lancaster County would ever be.

Robert Thomas is president of Tabor Community Services and a member of the executive committee of the Lancaster County Coalition to End Homelessness.

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