Federal HOME program makes a big difference in Waco. Time to make sure it doesn’t get cut.

By Phil York

Summer is my favorite season and the 4th of July is one of my favorite holidays. As a Navy brat, I shared many 4ths with other military families under an illuminated Washington, D.C. night sky; the glow of each explosion brilliantly reflected off of the marble monuments and served as bright dramatic reminders of the sacrifice many service members and their families pay for our freedom.

This past 4th, many of us may have traveled far and near to be with friends and family. We can all agree on one thing: there is nothing like returning home.

As we learned from our previous discussions in our housing blog series, many of our brothers and sisters here in Waco do not have safe, decent and affordable places to call home. Several local nonprofits work diligently alongside the dedicated staff members of the City of Waco and hard-working first time homebuyers to make the American Dream of homeownership a reality.

These efforts depend on HOME funds. Appropriately named, “HOME” is a federal program. Its longer name is “The HOME Investment Partnership Program.” HOME funds are appropriated to local jurisdictions, such as the City of Waco, so that organizations like Waco Habitat for Humanity can build a stronger Waco. These funds can be spent towards new construction, infrastructure improvements and repairs.

Drastic cuts in the HOME program are currently proposed. The latest policy updates from D.C. report that the Senate appropriations proposed to cut the HOME program by 93%. This is a cut from $950 million to $66 million. This will essentially eliminate the HOME program at a time when the need for affordable housing is growing across our nation. The United States Conference of Mayors December 2014 report “shows that 48% of the surveyed cities experienced an increase in homelessness. The report identifies a lack of affordable housing as the leading cause of homelessness among families with children.”

Affordable housing is defined as that which does not require a household to spend more than 30% of gross annual income. The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports in 2013 that the fair market rent for a two bedroom apartment in Texas is $847. In order to afford this level of rent without paying 30% of income, a household needs to make $34,671 annually. The median income in the Waco Area is $32,239 compared to the $51,900 state-wide; affordable housing is a need in our community.

Why the Cut?

We understand that our law makers have a duty to balance the budget and to make sure budget funds are spent wisely, and the HOME program has come under some harsh criticism. A 2011 Washington Post investigation launched a probe into the misuse of HOME funds. The article reported startling misuse of HOME funds: “hundreds of millions of dollars squandered on abandoned projects ; 700 projects with $400 million left idle for years; abuse was seen across the nation in communities such as Inglewood, California, Newark New Jersey, and Orange, TX.”

These reports are undoubtedly disturbing, but as with all policy discussions, it is important to have a balanced view on an issue.  Misuse of some program funds by some agencies may mean those agencies need to be re-organized, it does not necessarily mean that a whole program needs to be defunded.

HOME funds accomplish exactly what they are meant to accomplish in many communities – for example, Waco!

HOME Here in Waco:

On-time Construction timelines, completed construction production numbers and experienced staff preserve the integrity of the HOME program here locally. Here in Waco organizations that use these funds go through annual on-site audits. They build based on a stringent federal and local building codes. And they partner with applicants that are financially ready for the obligation of a 25-30 year mortgage. Staff members attend continuing education in construction, management and loan origination best practices. Each year, Waco’s organizations have to apply for funding and prove that they are worthy of another year of support based on the previous year’s performance.

The reality of how HOME funds are managed here in Waco is in sharp contrast to the 2011 Washington Post investigation. Here in Waco, precious tax payer funds are managed with the highest due diligence by both CHDOs and City of Waco leadership.

How I was Welcomed HOME

This past week, I was blessed to visit a Habitat homeowner with two members of my board (names have been changed to protect privacy). Sarah greeted us to her home. The purpose of our visit was to share the Star Garden Award; a program our board shares with the best of the best lawns in our Habitat communities.

Sarah greeted us from her driveway with a warm smile and a high-energy wave. Her hospitality beamed nonstop for the next hour. She proudly took us on a tour of her home. Sarah showed us the swing set she installed for her 6 year old daughter, Abigale. Sarah said Abigale can now invite friends over to play. The neighborhood is safe. The home is something her child is proud of. The swing set is lined with beautiful brick pavers she bought from the Habitat ReStore.

Sarah said something that stuck with me. “I literally helped to build this house through my own hands,” she said. “I continue to use those skills not only around the house but also outside with projects like these. I feel an independence that I never felt before in my life…this is our home…a place my Abigale will have long after I am gone.”

Sarah’s home was partially funded with HOME funding. HOME allowed Sarah to realize the independence of the American dream. But Sarah reminded me that her homeownership has a multi-generational impact in our community. Abigale happily swung on the swing set and sang a happy tune while Sarah continued to smile non-stop during her reflection of her home buying process. Sarah and Abigale embody the purpose of the HOME program.

CALL TO ACTION

There are many ways to let your voice be heard so that more homeowners like Sarah may realize the hard-earned status of homeownership.

Next time you are on social media, simply copy and paste the language below into your favorite social media outlet.

Tweet:

Americans are struggling more than ever to afford rising housing costs #UseYourVoice to tell Congress to #SaveHome! http://bit.ly/HFHHOME

Facebook:

Don’t let Congress cut funding for HOME, an efficient and effective program that helps Habitat provide affordable housing for those who need it most. Use your voice today to save HOME: http://bit.ly/HFHHOME

Speak Directly to your Elected Officials

Find your representative with this link. You can type in your zip code and your representatives will appear: http://www.fyi.legis.state.tx.us/Zip.aspx

Do not hesitate to contact all of the officials that represent you; federal, state and local.

GO here to learn of your City of Waco Council representation:

http://www.waco-texas.com/district-map.asp

Use information from this blog post as you speak to your representative. Here are some more talking points:

Production Numbers of the HOME Program (HOME Advocacy Coalition):

  • Every $1 million in HOME funds creates or preserves approximately 18 jobs.
  • Since 1992, HOME has created more than 1 million affordable homes
  • 496,000 homes for new homebuyers
  • 232,000 owner-occupied homes repaired
  • 298,000 tenants received direct rental assistance
  • More than half of HOME Funds have been used to assist “very” and “extremely” low-income families.

Get Involved

These are the websites of nonprofit builders (CHDOs) in Waco that build alongside the City of Waco. Ask to get involved, volunteer or to give to their powerful missions.

When the glow of sparklers fade, when the last plume of BBQ smoke disappears with the last of summer’s warm, lazy nights we will all be asked that annual question: “what did you do this summer?”

With these easy action steps, we will be able to say that we helped to preserve HOME not only for our nation, but for our community right here in Waco.


Phil 2Phil York, Director of Development at Waco Habitat for Humanity, is a self-described “policy nerd;” he is also the Act Locally Waco housing and homelessness policy blogger. You can direct questions to Phil to pyork.law@gmail.com. Would you be interested in blogging for Act Locally Waco? If so please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.

 

Affordable Housing: A New Year’s Resolution we can all Support

By Phil York

Happy New Year!

The holiday leftovers are long-gone; decorations are starting to find their way back to storage reluctantly and the sound of holiday music is replaced with the resounding resolutions for the New Year.

This week, President Obama addressed Central High School in Phoenix, Arizona. He asked the audience to remain resolved about the continued American economic recovery. The President cited the housing market crash, especially the market of Arizona, as the source for economic decline. Now, in 2015, that same market is the engine for the Arizonan and American economic recovery.

A cut in mortgage insurance premiums on Federal Housing Administration loans was at the center of President Obama’s policy announcement this past week. Starting this month, mortgage premiums will drop from 1.35 percent to .85 for responsible and eligible applicants. According to the President’s remarks, the cut would attract 250,000 more people to buy homes over the next three years and allow for the typical homebuyer to save $900 a year.

Of course, any proposal by the White House is potentially subject to mixed reviews. Sen. Bob Corker, for example, responded to President Obama’s address by saying: “[this is] bad news for tax payers and is yet another irresponsible, head-scratching decision from the administration in regards to our nation’s housing finance system.”

Sadly, policy issues such as this one are often divisive at the national level. Fortunately, here in Waco, we are united as a community that embraces collaboration and collective impact. This new policy idea provides a good opening to discuss the importance of affordable housing for our community and to think about ways we can work together on this issue here at home.

Affordable Housing in Texas – Opportunities for Growth

“Affordable housing” is defined as that which does not require a household to spend more than 30% of gross annual income on housing. The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports in 2013 that the fair market rent for a two bedroom apartment in Texas is $867. In order to afford this level of rent without paying 30% of income, a household needs to make $34,671 annually. The median income in the Waco area is $32,239 compared to $51,900 state-wide. In short: affordable housing is a need in our community.

Homeownership and affordable housing are points of possible improvement for our local economy. Waco’s homeownership rate is around 47 percent compared to 63 percent in Texas and 65 percent nationally.

The statistics help us define the problem; they do not define Waco or the promise we have for growth in the near future.

Housing impacts all aspects of the American Dream.

At many points in his address, President Obama pointed to themes that we all associate with the American dream:

Education and the Hope of our Children: As we have discussed in previous posts, children who experience homelessness or unstable housing are sick four times more often than other children; go hungry at twice the rate of other children; and are twice as likely to have learning disabilities as non-homeless children. Our whole community benefits for generations when children (our future tax-payers, professionals, and civic leaders) grow up in a stable home.

Work Force and Tax base: The National Association of Home Builders reports that “home building generates substantial local economic activity, including new income and jobs for residents, and additional revenue for local governments.” The report wisely differentiates between the immediate impact felt directly thanks to construction efforts and the long term impact felt long after the dust settles and families close on homes. The annually recurring impact of building 100 single-family homes in a typical metro area includes 3.1 million in local income, 743,000 in taxes and other revenue for local government and 53 jobs. Housing makes a difference for our work force tax base.

Heroes and Service Members: The President reported that “since 2010 we helped bring 1/3 of our veterans who are homeless off the streets”. The White House and previous administrations identified veterans as a key demographic to prioritize in budget decisions. The housing first model implemented in some communities allows veterans to receive care they need while under a stable roof and to continue to have a stable future. Housing makes a difference for our Heroes.

How will You be Resolved in 2015?

President Obama connected to the audience by sharing his own path to homeownership. He said “buying a home is about investing; planting roots in a community…it is a sense of accomplishment that you are building something for your family and for the future”.

The President’s remarks echo the speech we hear from Habitat homeowners as they close on their homes. This sense of accomplishment is what makes it worth it to invest 300 hours of sweat equity; attend 12 “Homeownership College” courses; save $1,000 for an escrow payment, and commit to a 25-30 year zero-interest mortgage. Waco Habitat allows future Partner Families to realize their own dream of homeownership and along with it a brighter future for themselves and their children.

This year, you can be resolved and help Waco build affordable housing. Here are a few ways you can help:

Let your voice be heard:

Sign the petition Habitat for Humanity International generated. The purpose of the petition is to make affordable housing a Global priority: Click here for the Petition.

Contact your U.S. House representative and your U.S. Senators. If your Representative is Mr. Bill Flores, you have the convenience to contact Rep Bill Flores directly via email. The U.S. Senators from Texas are John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, click on their names to find out how to contact each of them. Ask that housing remains on their agenda in the New Year.

Get Involved:

Give of your time, talent and treasure to nonprofits that build a stronger McLennan County, here are three organizations that work directly on the issue of affordable housing:

One Last Note

This quote from John Wood, Professor Emeritus of Religion at Baylor, appeared in the Waco Trib the other day, “Business is not just a way to make money; it is primarily a way to serve others and to contribute to the common good.”  Although nonprofits and government agencies are at the forefront of this discussion, the words of Professor Wood remind us of the calling we all have as Wacoans to make it our business to be resolved to contribute towards the constant care and improvement of our beloved community.

I hope you will join me in your unique way towards our shared efforts to build a stronger Waco in 2015.


Phil 2Phil York, Director of Development at Waco Habitat for Humanity, is a self-described “policy nerd;” he is also the Act Locally Waco housing and homelessness policy blogger. You can direct questions to Phil to pyork.law@gmail.com. Would you be interested in blogging for Act Locally Waco? If so please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org.

 

 

 

 

 

Panhandling: Sometimes the best gift is not giving…

by Phil York

Believe it or not, only 35 business days remain until Christmas Day. This headline would intimidate most, but not this seasoned last minute shopper. I consider it a countdown to when I will surely shine the brightest. For many of us holiday traditions offer community, love, hope and the promise of a New Year. Some of our neighbors, however, endure hardships each month of the year. The holiday season seems to highlight this fact as their struggles stand in sharp contrast to the bright lights and carols in the weeks ahead.

While some of our neighbors turn to family and friends, the faith community or the nonprofit sector of Waco for assistance, others may decide to ask the community directly for support. “Panhandling,” or the act of asking for money, food or goods publicly, is our blog topic today.

Stereotypes of Panhandling Unwrapped

Panhandling is often closely associated with homelessness, but it is important to note that all panhandlers are not necessarily homeless, and only a relatively small percentage of homeless people engage in panhandling. According to a report published in the Urban Affairs Review in 2003, less than 15% of the homeless people sampled reported having engaged in panhandling.

According to this same report, which compared homeless people who panhandled with those who did not, those who engage in panhandling tend to be those who lack personal relationships such as marriage or children. They tend to have been homeless more often and for longer periods of time, and they are more likely to have alcohol, drug or mental health problems. This combined set of factors may make it more difficult for this group of people to find legitimate employment, making it more likely that they will turn to panhandling as a means of survival.

Waco Ordinance

Sympathetic as a panhandler’s predicament may be to some, cities often work to discourage panhandling out of a concern that it may be bad for business. Like many cities, The City of Waco has a panhandling ordinance. In Waco, panhandling is not allowed on public streets, roadways or medians. In addition, people who are panhandling (soliciting) may not, for example:

  • Continue efforts to solicit from a person once that person has indicated they do not wish to be solicited from.
  • Misrepresent the purpose of the solicitation
  • Engage in conduct that creates a safety or traffic hazard.
  • Or, use children to solicit funds.

Ordinances against panhandling, however, do not completely solve the problem. For one thing, enforcing them comes at a cost. According to the report quoted above, “the average cost of detaining an individual in jail is roughly 25% higher than the daily cost of providing an individual with shelter, food, transportation and counseling services.” For another thing, they do little to address the root causes of the problems that lead to the panhandling.

What should we do when we are asked by a neighbor for money?

Decline out of love – According to a 2012 Trib article on panhandling in Waco, Teri Holtkamp, the City of Waco’s homelessness coordinator discourages giving money. “You never really know where the money is going,” she said. “You may be supporting drugs or prostitution. So, rarely are you really helping a person out.” “Don’t just give because you feel guilt,” she said. “If you want to make lasting change, you have to say, ‘I love you enough not to give you money, because I don’t know where it’s going.’” In a recent e-mail, Ms. Holtkamp reiterated those sentiments stating, “People deserve real change not spare change.”

Recognize the human dignity – What you can give is a smile, recognition of human presence, and perhaps directions to an agency or ministry that can help.

Give Wisely – If you would like to give something directly to a person asking you for help, a meal at a fast food restaurant, a bus pass or a snack from a convenience store are better choices than giving cash. (Note: Do not to serve food directly on the street without first contacting the City of Waco for the proper permits.)

Teri Holtkamp suggests that instead of giving handouts on the street, well-meaning people might consider giving their money to an agency. “When you give to the agency you know where your dollars are going,” she said. Also, as Jimmy Dorrell, founder and executive director of Mission Waco, stated in the 2012 Trib Article cited above, “… generally, when people become so desperate that they beg for food, they have other issues they need to address.” Two organizations in Waco that can help with those issues are The Salvation Army and Mission Waco. The Salvation Army serves hot meals 365 days a year at the Community Kitchen, located near downtown Waco at 300 Webster Ave. Meals are available to anyone who asks. Mission Waco’s social services, including access to the “My Brother’s Keeper” shelter, are available through the Meyer Center at 1226 Washington.

The Easiest Gift to Wrap

I had the honor to work at the National Coalition for the Homeless a few years ago. I assisted the Speakers Panel Program: an event that allowed high school students to hear from formerly homeless citizens of Washington, DC. When one of our speakers, Sarah, was asked, “What was the worst thing about being homeless? The Winter?” Sarah took a deep breath, wrestled with tears that eventually fell, and said, “The worst part about being homeless is the fact that people see right through you…ignore your existence…a smile and hello always shocked me in the rare times they were given and always changed the tone of my day.”

The holiday season is upon us. Gift shopping is on the agenda for most. If you are asked to give by a person on the street, remember Sarah’s soul-penetrating reminder of our shared human dignity and how the best gift can be something that we can all afford to give and to receive this holiday season.


Phil 2Phil York, Director of Development at Waco Habitat for Humanity, is a self-described “policy nerd;” he is also the Act Locally Waco housing and homelessness policy blogger. You can direct questions to Phil to pyork.law@gmail.com. Would you be interested in blogging for Act Locally Waco? If so please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org.

Pay Day Lending: Joining hands to Insist on Good Business Practice

by Phil York

Football season is here. As an Aggie transplant to Waco, I have a new struggle: competing loyalties as I slowly learn to cheer for my new home team, Baylor University.

On August 28th, the Family Health Center auditorium was buzzing with the energy of a packed football stadium on the Brazos. But, unlike a crowd that is divided by team loyalties, this audience was united by a powerful bond.

More than 80 Wacoans met under the leadership of Citizens for Responsible Lending (CRL), a group established this year by and for Wacoans for the purpose of advocating for an economically healthy Waco. The event was dubbed, “The State of Pay Day Lending Rally.”

Robin Reid spoke first at the Rally. Robin was the true expert in the room: she took out a pay day loan several years ago and had the courage to share her personal story with us. Robin reminded us that pay day loans provide an important service that is not provided by traditional banks. However, predatory practices such as intimidating phone calls at her home and workplace, automatic renewals, and exorbitant fees are not acceptable. As Robin highlighted, the discussion that night was not about being anti-business; but about being pro-good business.

After Robin, representatives from CRL (Alexis Christensen, Ryn Farmer, Rucker Preston and Josh Caballero), Texas Appleseed (Ann Baddour), and Texas Catholic Conference (Jennifer Carr Allmon) provided an update about Pay Day lending on the national, state and local levels. Together, the presenters answered several important questions, including these:

  • Why should we care about pay day lending in Waco?
  • What further steps can you take about pay day lending?

Why should we care about pay day lending in Waco?

Payday-LoansWe should care about Pay Day lending because of the negative impact it has on our local economy. Pay Day lending is a big presence in Waco. Waco has 29 licensed Pay Day Loan/Title Loan storefronts. That is more than the total number of McDonalds (8) and Starbucks (5) combined! Under the current laws that do not limit fees, size of the loan, rollovers or refinances, and do not consider the ability to repay based on income, Pay Day lending is a big loser for the Waco community.

Here are a few facts to give you a sense of the economic impact:

  • Borrowers pay an average of $23 in fees every 2-4 weeks for every $100 borrowed. Installment payday borrowers pay about $100 in fees per $100 borrowed.
  • 602 cars were repossessed last year by auto title lenders in the Waco area. To put that in perspective, there are 1,900 parking spaces available in downtown Waco for Baylor Football games. Imagine the cars in almost a third of those spaces being repossessed and their drivers left without transportation to get to work or to take care of the other necessessities of life.
  • 10.5 million dollars were drained from the Waco area economy in 2013 because of excessive fees.

What further steps can you take about Pay Day lending?

Join us! – This powerful rally was the result of concerned Wacoans coming together. When I spoke to Jennifer of the Texas Catholic Conference after the rally, she commented that Waco is one of the most proactive and caring communities she has visited in her Texas-wide research. Whereas other communities need extra support, Wacoans boldy say “we got this!”  You can join your neighbors and friends who are already part of Citizens for Responsible Lending (CRL). Contact Alexis Christensen at alexis@wacocdc.org or 254-235-7358 to learn more.

Know your rights – Organizations such as the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid provide literature about pay day lending. If you or some of your friends and family are already ensnared in debt related to Pay Day or Title lending, one of the most powerful tools for reducing the negative effect is to know your rights. Here are two helpful bulletins:

Share your opinion with the Waco City Council – At the rally, Council Member Toni Herbert (District 4) reminded us that there is a designated item on each Council meeting agenda called “hearing of visitors.” This is time specifically set aside for citizens to have a chance to voice concerns. You could use this time to voice your concerns about Pay Day lending. Council meetings are held the first and third Tuesdays of every month. Here’s a link to more information about how our city council works: Waco City Council.

Sign the petition supporting a Waco City Council resolution about Pay Day Lending – The Citizens for Responsible Lending have drafted a resolution that we would like for the Waco City Council to adopt. If adopted, it would state that our city council resolves to:

  • Urge the Texas Legislature and Governor of Texas to adopt a 36% annual percentage cap on fees/interest,
  • Encourage the City of Waco to explore alternatives and ordinances,
  • Follow the same format of cities such as Bryan and College Station that passed ordinances. Currently. (18 cities have passed ordinances)

If you would like to sign the petition urging our city council to adopt this resolution, contact alexis@wacocdc.org.

Alas, football season is here.

Football seasons have winners and losers, and they come and go. Some seasons are filled with “band-wagoners” who follow in the wake of the winning team. Unlike the fickle nature of football followership, the diligent passion, care and concern of Wacoans is as constant as the river Brazos.

Robin Reid’s story is our story. Predatory lending practices that threaten the financial security of many Waco residents are a concern for all Waco residents. These practices threaten the economic health of our whole community by preying on residents who are working hard to gain a financial foothold. We know how to join hands and act locally to insist on fair, pro-good business practices, and that is exactly what we are doing.


Phil 2Phil York, Director of Development at Waco Habitat for Humanity, is a self-described “policy nerd;” he is also the Act Locally Waco housing and homelessness policy blogger. You can direct questions to Phil to pyork.law@gmail.com. Would you be interested in blogging for Act Locally Waco? If so please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org.

 

How Decisions in Washington Could Affect Housing in Waco, Part II – Homeless Assistance Grants

by Phil York, Act Locally Waco Housing and Homelessness Policy blogger

In the Act Locally Waco blog post on May 18, we introduced information about a bill called The U.S. House of Representatives Fiscal Year 2015 Transportation Housing and Urban Development (THUD) bill (HR 4745). In this post, I would like to give you an update on the status of that bill, and also explain how this bill directly affects our goal of reducing homelessness in Waco.

The importance of McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants

A key element of the THUD bill that directly affects Waco is funding for McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants, in particular the Continuum of Care program. (For an excellent description of this program from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, click here.) According to the most recent update on the Mayor’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, agencies and organizations who work with homeless people in Waco have been able to reduce chronic homelessness in Waco by two-thirds since work on the plan was initiated in 2005. The funds Waco has received via the Continuum of Care Grant program have been foundational to the successful implementation of the plan so far, and continued funding will be necessary for on-going success.

In 2013, for example, our Waco community received over a million dollars ($1,040,292 ) through this competitive grant program. Almost all of the money ($977,639) received from this grant went directly to fund needed programs administered by some of the most well-respected non-profits and agencies in Waco, specifically:

The remainder ($62,653) went to pay for the administration of our Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). This is the software that allows us to measure participation in our programs for homeless people and to identify patterns in usage of various services. It is our best source for the information we need to track our progress and to make sure we are working together as efficiently and effectively as possible.

According to the research done in connection with the Mayor’s 10-year Plan to End Homelessness, each chronically homeless person in Waco was costing the city $39,000 in 2005. Best estimates suggest that with the help of the Continuum of Care grant funds, we have reduced the number of chronically homeless people in Waco from 97 (at a cost of $3,783,000 per year) to 32 ($1,248,000 per year). In other words for a $1,040,292 per year Continuum of Care investment, we are generating $2,535,000 per year worth of benefit. And those figures only consider what we have been able to accomplish regarding chronic homelessness; they do not take into account the progress that has been made regarding other kinds of homelessness thanks to Continuum of Care funding.

What does HR 4745 mean to Waco?

President Obama’s proposed 2015 budget included $2.145 billion for Homeless Assistance Grants, a $300 million dollar increase. The House version of the appropriation (HR 4745), proposes keeping the funding at 2014 levels, $2.105 billion.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), remaining at 2014 funding levels would be bad news for communities like Waco who depend on money from the Continuum of Care Grant. As the NAEH explains on their website, “Due to expiring multi-year grants and increased renewal demand, the $2.105 billion funding level for McKinney that passed through the House would result in funding cuts to Continuums of Care. If this funding level is enacted, communities will be required to once again make the difficult tiering and prioritization decisions they made for the FY 2013 NOFA (Notice of Funds Availability).”

Where is the Bill Now?

According to Govtrack.us, this bill passed in the House on June 10, 2014 and goes to the Senate next for consideration.

What Can I do?

Remain informed: The most important call to action is for us to remain informed about the current policy landscape. Regardless of your political background or interest, we share common ground in the preservation and long term health of Waco.  You can follow the work of the US Committee on Appropriations by visiting their website: http://appropriations.house.gov/news/. Another useful site for keeping track of legislation is Govtrack.us. This site gives a step by step graphical guide on where policy is within the legislative process.

Speak up: Contact your U.S. House representative and your U.S. Senators. Let your representatives know that the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants, and in particular the Continuum of Care Grants, are making a tremendous difference in the Waco community. The money being spent has directly resulted in reducing homelessness, and it is an investment that saves money both immediately and in the long run. Feel free to use points raised in this blog post as talking points in your correspondence. If your Representative is Mr. Bill Flores, you have the convenience to contact Rep Bill Flores directly via email (https://billflores.house.gov/contact/ ).  The U.S. Senators from Texas are John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, click on their names to find out how to contact each of them.

Connect directly to the mission: There are volunteer and giving opportunities at each of the nonprofits listed in this blog post. Connect directly to the work that is reducing homelessness and making Waco a better place to live for all of us.

Special thanks to Jennifer Caballero, Lead Program Analyst – HMIS, City of Waco, for her technical assistance in this blog post research.

Phil 2Phil York, Director of Development at Waco Habitat for Humanity, is a self-described “policy nerd;” he is also the Act Locally Waco housing and homelessness policy blogger. You can direct questions to Phil to pyork.law@gmail.com. Would you be interested in blogging for Act Locally Waco? If so please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org.

 

How decisions in Washington could affect housing in Waco

by Phil York, Act Locally Waco Housing and Homelessness Policy blogger

Since the post-holiday season, we have used the motif of unwrapping gifts to understand some of the dimensions of housing and homelessness.

We started our discussion with a definition of homelessness through Housing and Urban Development (the federal agency that administers national housing programs). We then discussed how this definition is applied to children, veterans and our other neighbors who may not have a home.

The purpose of our conversation is to keep us all informed: we need to be aware of how decisions made in Washington affect our lives in Waco.

We can use the lessons learned over the past few months and apply them to the latest update from Washington. Let us use our knowledge-base to unwrap:

  • The basics of the proposed legislation
  • Possible local implications of the proposed legislation
  • Ways we can continue our collective efforts to build a stronger Waco

The Basics of the Proposed Legislation:

The U.S. House of Representatives Fiscal Year 2015 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) bill is scheduled for House Appropriations Mark-up next week.

Here are the basics about the bill (a paraphrased summary provided by CSH – A Housing Policy and Advocacy Group (www.csh.org )):

  1. Overall, the House version of the FY2015 THUD Appropriations bill would decrease funding for HUD by $769 million from the FY2014 levels.
  2. The bill flat funds the Homelessness Assistance Grant programs, providing $2.1 billion. It did not accept the $300 million increase proposed by President Obama.
  3. There is a slight increase in Housing Choice Voucher program; however, the funding provided does not restore the 40,000 vouchers that were lost to sequestration.
  4. Funding for the HOME program cut by $300 million.

The U.S. House of Representatives Committee reports specifically about the Community Planning and Development program with the following update in a May press release: 

“The bill contains $6.2 billion for Community Planning and Development programs – a reduction of $383 million below the fiscal year 2014 enacted level. The Community Development Block Grant formula program is funded at $3 billion – effectively equal to last year’s level – while the HOME Investment Partnerships Program is funded at $700 million, a reduction of $300 million below the fiscal year 2014 enacted level. 

Subcommittee Chairman Tom Latham provided the following commentary about the proposed bill:

“My priorities in this process were to act in a bipartisan fashion to fund our most vital programs with our critical need to reduce the deficit. This is a sound, commonsense bill that meets our highest transportation and housing priorities in a fiscally responsible way. I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to move this important legislation forward in an open legislative process.” 

Possible Local Implications of the Proposed Legislation:

habitat buildWaco Habitat is just one of many organizations that partner with the City of Waco to build a stronger Waco with the programs described above. Here are a few ways Waco Habitat used these precious public dollars to improve our community:

ReStore:

  • By using Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds through a zero percent loan (that was paid back within three years), the Waco economy has been greatly impacted for the good.
  • ReStore offers affordable building materials to people in our community, recycles products thus diverting them from the landfill, and supports administrative efforts of our organization.
  • ReStore diverts 3,000 tons from the landfill annually and saves the city about $164,000. The net income from ReStore assures donors to Waco Habitat that 100% of their gift goes to build and repair homes in our community.

New Home Construction Program:

  • We are concerned that funding levels proposed in the FY 2015 House THUD bill will make it more difficult for us to serve people living at 30% to 60% area median family income.
  • Without HOME funds our partnership housing ministry would be greatly thwarted. Since 1999, Waco Habitat for Humanity has served as a Community Housing Development Organization.
  • With over $3.1 million, we have built 48 houses.
  • Home ownership assures about seven new home owners join the tax paying roles each year.
  • Home ownership adds to the tax base of our community, improves schools, enhances professional opportunities, strengthens school performance, expands likelihood of graduation, and spreads hope for future generations.

Habitat achieved the above accomplishments thanks to our public fund partnerships. Budget cuts today affect Waco’s ability to realize a community where everyone has a decent place to live.

Ways We Can Continue Our Collective Efforts to Build a Stronger Waco:

  • Remain informed: The most important call to action is for us to remain informed about the current policy landscape. Regardless of your political background or interest, we share common ground in the preservation and long term health of Waco. Follow the work of the US Committee on Appropriations: http://appropriations.house.gov/news/.
  • Have your voice heard: Contact your U.S. House representative. Please provide your Representative with the talking points provided above. If your Representative is Mr. Bill Flores, you have the convenience to contact Rep Bill Flores directly via email (https://billflores.house.gov/contact/ ).
  • Connect directly to the mission: There are volunteer opportunities at Habitat and other nonprofit organizations that work directly with our neighbors in need. These organizations offer opportunities for you to give of your time and talent.

Your donations, whether they be of time or money, are important – they bind us together. Once connected, we may share the urgency of the above implications and collectively move our leadership to join us as we build a stronger Waco together.

Phil 2Phil York, Director of Development at Waco Habitat for Humanity, is a self-described “policy nerd;” he is also the Act Locally Waco housing and homelessness policy blogger. You can direct questions to Phil to pyork.law@gmail.com. Would you be interested in blogging for Act Locally Waco? If so please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org.

 

 

Unwrapping a Basic Understanding of Veteran Homelessness

by Phil York, Act Locally Waco Housing and Homelessness Policy blogger

“It is simply unacceptable for individuals, children, families and our nation’s Veterans to be faced with homelessness in this country”  – President Obama, June 18, 2009.

Who is your favorite superhero?

It seems like the silver screen is flush with superhero smash hits every summer. Batman, with his man cave and great car, is my second favorite superhero. But before I was acquainted with Warner Brothers and Marvel Comics, my first favorite superhero was (and continues to be) my Father. Like all other superheroes, my Dad wore a superhero suit (his uniform), and in my eyes, saved the world each day during his career in the United States Navy.

In my previous posts we have discussed the broad implications of homelessness and how homelessness affects our community, our economy and our youth. Today we will unwrap a basic understanding of homelessness among Veterans: Our American Heroes.

National Policy

The Obama Administration publically calls housing a basic human right. The flagship federal agency for housing initiatives, policy, and public funding related to housing is Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Under the leadership of Secretary Shaun Donovan, HUD and many other agencies partner so we can do more about homelessness through a holistic approach. That collaborative group is called The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH). It is an independent agency comprised of 19 Cabinet Secretaries and agency heads that coordinate responses to homelessness. HUD, USDA, Department of Veteran Affairs, Social Security Administration, and Department of Homeland Security are just a few of the partner agencies involved.

This interagency collaboration is mandated by The Hearth Act (signed into law by President Obama May 2009). President Obama’s Opening Doors Plan (drafted in 2010), is the United States’ first comprehensive strategy to prevent and end homelessness. The Plan is focused on four key goals: (1) Finish the job of ending chronic homelessness in five years; (2) Prevent and end homelessness among Veterans in five years; (3) Prevent and end homelessness for families, youth, and children in ten years; and (4) Set a path to ending all types of homelessness. USICH uses this plan to guide program implementation.

How are we doing?

Here is a timeline of the progress that has been reported regarding homeless Veterans:

2009 – According to President Obama’s plan document (p. 20), in 2009, the VA estimated 107,000 homeless Veterans on any given night.

2010 – According to Green Doors, a central Texas nonprofit corporation and a Veteran advocacy group, the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) estimated that on any given night there were 76,000 homeless veterans sleeping on American streets.

2011 – On December 13, 2011, HUD released the 2011 Point-In-Time Count Report that showed there were 67,495 homeless veterans in the United States (including sheltered and unsheltered). Among those reported were 1,500 in Texas, and 40 in Waco/McLennan County.

2012 – According to Housing and Urban Development’s Point-in-Time Survey, January 2012, 62,619 veterans were homeless on a single night in January 2012. Texas had by far the largest number of homeless veterans among statewide counts with 1,481 homeless veterans on a single night.

2013 – HUD’s “2013 Continuum of Care Homeless Assistance Programs Homeless Populations and Subpopulations Report” states the count of homeless veterans (sheltered and unsheltered) as 58,063. According to a blog post by Secretary Donovan on December 2013, “The numbers since 2010 when Opening Doors was created are encouraging… homelessness among Veterans fell an incredible 24 percent.” He credits this improvement to the strong working partnership between HUD and Veterans’ Affairs and to a commitment to learning from evidence-based research.

A lot left to Un-Wrap

The most common metric in homelessness policy is the Point-In-Time Count. Most communities conduct a Point-In-Time count once a year, usually in January. It counts people who are unsheltered or in emergency shelters or transitional housing. Families, youth, and other individuals who are doubled up are not included. The Point-in-Time Count may be the best we can do as far as measuring homelessness, but it is far from perfect.

When I served as a Point-In-Time surveyor in Brazos County, “are you a Veteran?” was a question on the verbal survey. There are several important things to consider about that question:

  • The survey itself is voluntary
  • This specific question is a voluntary, self-selected answer
  • Depending on its place in the survey order, it may not be asked before the participant elects to end the conversation
  • The participant needs to trust the surveyor; without trust little information can be collected.

Given the flaws of the Point-In-Time Survey that several of our sources identify, I am reluctant to share HUD’s rosy estimate of the progress that has been made. I agree that the data from multiple sources supports the conclusion that we have made at least some steps in the right direction; the question remains of how large those steps have been.

I say that not to be pessimistic about our progress, but to make sure we complete the race before we celebrate its end. If data points are used to judge success or failure of our agencies we need to know as informed citizens the nature of that data. The data collection challenge is a reoccurring theme across all topics and demographics of homelessness. It is worth describing in each blog as it affects each group uniquely.

One uniform opinion across data sources is that the true number of homeless veterans is more than likely higher than the estimate. Much work remains to be accomplished with this important population. Considering their sacrifice, our Veterans and their families remain our heroes long after they retire their uniforms. I look forward to our next discussion about this important topic.

Phil 2Phil York, Director of Development at Waco Habitat for Humanity, is a self-described “policy nerd;” he is also the Act Locally Waco housing and homelessness policy blogger. You can direct questions to Phil to pyork.law@gmail.com.  Would you be interested in blogging for Act Locally Waco?  If so please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org.

 

 

“Unwrapping” a basic understanding of Child Homelessness

by Phil York, Act Locally Waco Housing and Homelessness Policy blogger

The previous months welcomed the annual holiday season. Some of us spent time unwrapping gifts with high anticipation for what would be revealed underneath the glitter and flashy paper. In one of our previous posts we talked about the rise of homelessness among a few specific demographic groups. Today we will start to “unwrap” one of those groups as we learn a bit more about homelessness among children. The Charles A. Dana Center of The University of Texas reports that “over a course of a year, between 2.3 and 3.5 million people will experience homelessness in the United States, of which between 900,000 and 1.4 million will be children.”

Unfortunately, any conversation about homelessness must depend on ranges or estimates. As you might imagine, the very nature of homelessness makes it difficult to accurately count the people who are experiencing that situation. It is particularly challenging to get an accurate count of our homeless children and youth because the federal definition of “homelessness” as it applies to children is quite complex.

Children are considered homeless if they:

  • Are abandoned in hospitals.
  • Are awaiting foster-care placement.
  • Are living in environments not intended for habitation such as cars, parks, motels, public spaces, train stations.
  • Are living in substandard housing.
  • Are living in transitional housing.
  • Are sharing housing of others because of loss of housing, economic hardship.
  • Are displaced by a natural disaster.
  • Are fleeing a domestic abuse situation.
  • Are living temporarily with a relative in another town because a parent is hospitalized for illness or surgery.
  • Are immigrant students living in a homeless situation, without regard to whether they are in the US legally or illegally.

As you can see, child homelessness is more difficult to define than it might at first appear. This makes it even more difficult to observe. For example, a third grade student in WISD might technically have a roof over her head for the night, yet still suffer from inadequate housing. She would not be counted in a “point in time” count of those living on the street, but she is still considered homeless by the federal definition. Despite this complicated definition, thanks to the diligent work of the Homeless Outreach Services at WISD and the City of Waco we are able to estimate the number of homeless children in Waco ISD. That number, according to a May 2013 report by KXXV news is right around 1,500.

This definition of child homelessness is codified in a law called the McKinny-Vento Act. This law provides protections to youth that fall under the definition of homelessness and who are 21 and under (or until high school graduation in some states). Each school district is required by law to have a McKinny-Vento specialist available on staff to serve, protect and preserve the rights of homeless students. The specialist’s duties include:

  • Identification of homeless children.
  • Ensuring that homeless children enroll in and have a fair opportunity to succeed in school.
  • Making referrals to health care, dental, mental health and other appropriate services.
  • Informing parents and guardians of the educational and related opportunities available to their children and provide them with meaningful opportunities to participate in that education.
  • Disseminating public notice of educational rights.
  • Informing families and youth about transportation services and assisting them in accessing transportation.

The McKinny-Vento specialist for Waco ISD is Cheryl Pooler. She shared some insights about her work in a 2013 interview with KWBU. In the interview, Ms. Pooler described the difficulty of the first duty of her post: simply identifying students who may be eligible for programs.

National, state and local realities compel policy such as the McKinny-Vento Act which broadens the definition of homelessness among youth. This is important because homelessness is a complex issue that cannot be addressed without definitions and policies that are flexible enough to meet the complexity. But with complexity comes bureaucracy, including the documentation obstacles Ms. Pooler described in her interview.

The McKinny-Vento Act is not a simple piece of legislation. The definition of homelessness for children is not simple. Even the most basic task of figuring out how many homeless children we have in Waco is not simple. Perhaps we should let all of this legal complexity serve to remind us that life as a homeless child is certainly not simple. Consider for a moment how difficult it would be for a child experiencing any of the situations enumerated in the federal definition of homelessness to focus on school work.

“Unwrapping” the challenge of child homelessness is not a simple endeavor. Much more remains to be unwrapped. We will continue to unwrap homelessness, understand its scope and the policies around it in future posts.

york_phil2 (2)Phil York, Coordinator of Grants and Contracts at Waco Habitat for Humanity is a self-described “policy nerd;” he is also the Act Locally Waco housing and homelessness policy blogger. You can direct questions to Phil to pyork.law@gmail.com.  Would you be interested in blogging for Act Locally Waco?  If so please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org.

 

 

Understanding the Definition of “Homelessness”

by Phil York

Days ago, Oxford Dictionary accepted the popular term, “selfie” into the canon of the English language. Selfie (the act of extending your own smart phone ahead of you to take a self-portrait) is now part of our daily lexicon and day-to-day reality.

Definitions are important. They allow us to grasp our reality, place labels on items, and understand our world. This blog post will explore some of the definitions of homelessness. If we are to be informed citizens about homelessness laws, programs, and funding we need to understand how this important issue is defined.

Merriam-Webster defines homelessness as “having no place to live”. This simple description probably accurately reflects our common understanding of the issue, but it does not capture the variety of ways a person or family may experience homelessness. If we are going to work toward effective solutions, we need a more in depth understanding.

For example, in 2009, The City of Waco, along with a coalition of nonprofits and civic-minded leaders took steps to define and understand the long-term impact of one particular kind of homelessness, called “chronic homelessness. ” Chronic homelessness tends to be the kind of homelessness that is the most visible on our streets. Between 2008 and 2009, this group developed a report called “Opening Doors, Unlocking Potential: The Mayor’s 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness.” As the basis of this work, they used the federal government’s definition of chronic homelessness which, at that time, was the following: “an unaccompanied individual who has been homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years, and who may be disabled by addiction, mental illness or other disabilities.” (Note: In that report, the City estimated the cost of the chronically homeless to be $39,000 per year, per individual).

Chronic homelessness, while probably the most visible and the most expensive form of homelessness, is just one piece of the homelessness puzzle. It represents only a small percentage of all the individuals who are defined as “homeless” in our community. The United States Congress in conjunction with a few federal agencies collectively have different, and often overlapping, definitions for homelessness that are quite broad and may include populations we may not immediately recognize as homeless. For example, some people are considered homeless even though they technically have a roof over their head at night, if that roof is only temporary. In 2008 the US Congress defined a homeless person as “an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is a temporary accommodation for not more than 90 days in the residence of another individual.” This definition includes coach surfers and others who may be housed by friends and family for a period of time.

The definition of homelessness used by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) includes four main categories:

  • Individuals and families that do not have a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence or who resided in an emergency shelter or place not meant for human habitation”.
  • Individuals and families who are on the verge of losing their primary nighttime residence.
  • Unaccompanied youth.
  • Individuals and families who are fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence or other dangerous life-threatening conditions.

Children are defined by several federal agencies as homeless if they:

  • Live in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to lack of alternative adequate accommodations.
  • Live in emergency or transitional shelters.
  • Await foster care placement.
  • Live in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations or similar settings.
homelessness by age chart

Source: http://www.endhomelessness.org/pages/faqs#youth

All these definitions can make it a challenge to pin down the demographics of homelessness, but according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 46% of the nation’s homeless are younger than the age of 30; 22% are under the age of 18. This large percentage may be why our federal leadership moved to include children as a separate homeless category. Homeless children are a particular concern in Waco. According to recent estimates 1,500 children in WISD are considered homeless. You can imagine how difficult it would be for a child to concentrate on school work while couch surfing or living in a shelter or camping out at a park.

Homelessness affects our social and economic fabric on the national, state and local scale. You may have been surprised to learn how broadly homelessness is defined in our country and that it includes individuals who are technically living under roofs, foster children, substandard housing residents, couch surfers, shelter attendees and those fleeing domestic assault. These definitions become significant on the local level as nonprofits, churches and private organizations work with federal, state and local programs to qualify individuals for homeless programs and services.

Hopefully a more in depth understanding of the definition of homelessness will help you have a little context for what you hear about homelessness on the news or the radio. It’s important for all of us to understand these definitions as we participate as citizens in discussions about budget amendments and policy changes, and especially as we cast our ballots. If you were to take a selfie now, you would capture a more informed Wacoan. I hope to build on our collective knowledge with each blog post.

york_phil2 (2)Phil York, Coordinator of Grants and Contracts at Waco Habitat for Humanity is a self-described “policy nerd;” he is also the Act Locally Waco housing and homelessness policy blogger. You can direct questions to Phil to pyork.law@gmail.com.  Would you be interested in blogging for Act Locally Waco?  If so please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org.

 

Why should we care about housing and homelessness?

With this post Act Locally Waco introduces Phil York, Coordinator of Grants and Contracts at Waco Habitat for Humanity. A self-described “policy nerd,” Phil has agreed to a stint as ALW’s housing and homelessness policy blogger. Welcome aboard, Phil! We are looking forward to your insights on this crucial element in making Waco a great place to live for every person of every level of income!

Policy briefings, lobbyist meetings, and picket lines…this is the typical landscape we see and hear in the headlines of Washington. They all seem to be actions from a distant planet with unknown implications on our day-to-day lives. This blog series is designed to make federal housing and homelessness policy less alien and more accessible, and to explain what effect these important policies have on Waco, Texas.

But…why should we care?

york_phil2 (2)In graduate school, I had a professor who asked this question at the end of each student’s graduation thesis. Needless to say this is a question that is so fundamental that it feels like a punch to the gut after you are finished an important speech. But the question is worth asking with any social issue. Wacoans should care about housing and homelessness because of the social and economic impact these issues have in our community.

For example, consider the impact of homelessness on our children and youth. Homelessness is a growing problem among families, particularly families with children. If youth are subject to homelessness they are also subject to health hazards that are easily acquired by living on the streets such as communicable diseases . Also, children experiencing homelessness are four times more likely to show delayed development and twice as likely to have learning disabilities as non-homeless children .

Sadly, Youth are a growing demographic among America’s homeless. Nationwide, homelessness among K-12 age students saw a 10 percent rise from 1,065,794 to 1,168,354 . According to the US Department of Education, the Lone Star state is third among the top 10 states with the number of homeless students. Texas accounts for 94,624 homeless enrolled students; this represents an 11% increase between 2011-2012 .

These children are our future workers and leaders. The current social impact is clear, and we would also be wise to consider the long term economic impact of a future workforce that has not been able to study in a safe environment, a future workforce that is vulnerable to weather and disease. These deprivations during childhood can have a lasting negative impact on a person’s ability to get the education necessary to find a good-paying job. This in turn has a negative impact on the economic health of the whole community.

In addition to this kind of long term social impact, the immediate economic impact of homelessness is clear. A 2007 video produced by the City of Waco shows that the cost per chronically homeless person in Waco is $39,000. Approximately 15% of homeless population is chronically, or persistently, homeless. This 15% of the homeless population uses 50% of homeless services. The total cost of homelessness to our community is estimated at more than $7.6 million. Shelters, emergency rooms, police and correctional facilities are among the tax-funded programs used. One possible approach to this challenge is Permanent Supportive Housing. This kind of housing approach could potentially cut the cost of helping these chronically homeless individuals. Once chronically homeless individuals are housed, this could free up resources to help reduce episodic homelessness.

Affordable housing and a thoughtful approach to homelessness issues will have an impact on the current and future health of Waco. Housing has a direct tie to education, health, and the economic prosperity of our community. We should care about housing because it is critical.

The stakes are high. Familiarity with policies that drive local programs can help us actively participate in the continued improvement of our community.

I look forward to learning with you. Regards, Phil York.