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Sequester Cuts Hit Homeless

Massive cuts brought on by the sequester are threatening the effectiveness of organizations all over the country that depend on federal funding, and programs that help those who have nothing—like the homeless—are preparing for the worst.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development announced on March 11 that the two programs aimed primarily at providing services for the homeless, the Emergency Solutions Grants and Continuum of Care programs, will be cut by five percent, putting at least 100,000 homeless or formerly homeless people at risk.

The Homeless Alliance of Western New York estimates that the across-the-board cuts will total $700,000 locally, pulling the rug out from underneath people who depend on the aid and stability provided by homeless assistance programs.

“If you subscribe to the belief that Congress is supposed to take care of those who are unable to take care of themselves, then I don’t understand why cutting homeless funds benefits anyone,” said Dale Zuchlewski, executive director of the Homeless Alliance. “I think people recognize the need to reduce federal spending, but you’re literally taking funds from people who have nothing. They shouldn’t be paying the price for government gridlock.”

Pre-sequester funding for the homeless was at about $1.9 billion, but still fell short of what was needed. The National Alliance to End Homelessness applied for $300 million more, “and that still wouldn’t take care of all the homeless,” Zuchlewski said.

Part of the reason funding has fallen short in the past may be due to stereotypes commonly associated with the homeless—stereotypes that Zuchlewski says are untrue and drag down the perception of the homeless population.

“When you’re talking homeless people, it’s important to realize that they’re not what people think—the old guy pushing a shopping cart down the street, clutching cans and bottles,” Zuchlewski said. “That’s just a small percentage of the homeless. Most are in shelters. About 25 percent are families, and they’re mostly women and children. Women who are victims of domestic violence are also considered homeless. You don’t necessarily see them on the streets.

“There is a population of the homeless that people don’t realize are homeless, and when you start taking funds away from them, it’s going to hurt,” Zuchlewski added.

A February 5 letter from HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan outlined the impact the cuts will have on the homeless. Donovan wrote that 125,000 people who benefit from the Housing Choice Voucher program (Section 8), which helps very low-income families find safe, affordable housing, are at risk of losing those benefits and becoming homeless.

According to Donovan, the sequester cuts would also put over 100,000 formerly homeless people out of their shelters and back onto the streets, and force organizations like the Homeless Alliance to make difficult decisions of what programs to keep and what to cut.

“If we’re preparing for the worst-case scenario and we have to make cuts, then we’re looking at programs that are high cost per client versus other similar programs,” Zuchlewski said. “We’ll be looking over our agency budgets very closely to make sure only the essential things are being funded. There will probably be people who will end up homeless because of the cuts.”

The impact does not stop where the street ends. Homeless outreach organizations will most likely need to lay off some employees to offset the budget cuts—but the people who will feel the brunt of the cuts are the ones who can least afford a setback.

“There’s no way to just sort of mask over $700,000 in cuts,” Zuchlewski said. “You’re going to see programs that just aren’t funded anymore. That’s something that will happen to people in those shelters.”

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