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City hopeful about plan to serve homeless

But a pastor is critical of the reliance on a flawed count

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The city of Springfield has been allotted $3.8 million in a Home Investment Partnerships Program grant, funded by the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act.

Congress has stipulated $5 billion of these funds are to be used for homeless prevention through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and this is where Springfield intends to use its grant.

After consulting 20 local agencies that serve the unsheltered population, the city has crafted a plan for how to spend its Home-ARP funds. Springfield City Council will hold a first reading of the proposal at its regular meeting June 13, with a vote scheduled for June 27.

Bob Jones, grants administrator with the city’s planning department, said the process to determine how to use the funds was slow.

In the 15 months since Congress approved the funds, HUD came out with a 97-page guide for applying, with an attached 77-page description of how the Home-ARP funds differ from HUD’s regular Home program, which Springfield participates in routinely, Jones said.

He noted 650 municipalities were approved for grants, but so far only 21 of those plans have been approved by HUD. Meanwhile, Springfield has had a chance to learn from some of those municipalities’ mistakes. The agency came out with additional guidance, showing cities where plans could go wrong.

“We were able to tweak ours, thankfully – we didn’t have to do a major restart,” he said.

Springfield’s draft plan
The plan calls for $2.2 million toward acquisition and development of noncongregate shelters – that is, shelters with individual bedrooms, rather than a group sleeping space.

The plan also calls for $1 million to develop affordable rental housing, with another $400,000 allocated for supportive services, such as counseling and case management.

The plan allows $190,000, or 5% of the grant, for administrative costs, less than the 15% permitted by HUD.

In determining how the money should be used, noncongregant shelters and affordable rental housing were the top vote-getters among agency representatives, Jones said.

Consulting agencies included member agencies of the Ozarks Alliance to End Homelessness, the continuum of care organization that serves Springfield and Greene, Christian and Webster counties, and Housing Authority of Springfield, Burrell Behavioral Health and Springfield Public Schools.

Jones said the $2.2 million allocation for shelters will pay for about half of a 13-unit building, which will cost about $5 million.

Asked about a plan that would provide only 13 shelter spaces, Jones said it is a help, not a solution to the city’s entire homeless problem.

“The picture’s too big for that,” he said. “With the need out there, $3.8 million is not much.”

For the $1 million in affordable rental housing funds, the plan is to add $1 million of conventional Home funding from HUD. Jones said that money will pay a portion of the cost to construct housing. The combined funds can apply $50,000-$75,000 per house to build about 10-12 houses. Jones said a 1,500-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath house can be built for $175,000-$225,000, not including the land.

Big need, small dollars
HUD requires participating municipalities conduct a point-in-time count of the homeless population. This snapshot, aka PIT count, conducted by the Ozarks Alliance to End Homelessness look at the homeless population on a specific night, usually in the middle of January.

Jones said PIT count numbers were never presented as the definitive population of homeless people in the city.

According to the 2021 PIT count, 583 individuals were experiencing homelessness on the day of the count, and 66 of these were classified as unsheltered.

Christie Love, pastor of The Connecting Grounds, a church that serves homeless people and others, has expressed concern about reliance on the PIT count, which is acknowledged by the city and by national experts as quite low.

“Nationally, experts seem to indicate relatively consistently that the PIT count is an important metric, but it can’t be used alone; it needs to be compared to other data in each community,” she said. “If you really want to know your population, take your PIT count and times it by 2.5. That’s a more reasonable number that is closer to our street census.”

The Connecting Grounds has an outreach center that provides services to the unsheltered community. At it, people can get a meal, clothes and shoes, nonperishable grocery items and outdoor gear. They can receive medical treatment, use computers to sign up for services, receive pet food and get their bikes fixed.

A check-in starts the process at the outreach center, and since 2020, data has been kept on individuals and their needs.

“We felt like we needed to be tracking how many individuals we were engaging with that didn’t have stable shelter and met HUD’s definition of homeless,” Love said.

Names are entered into a spreadsheet that also notes living situations, whether a person is living outside, couch surfing, living in a hotel or otherwise. Names are removed when people become housed, move, are incarcerated or die.

Springfield’s current street census, as of the beginning of June, is 1,259, Love said, and a net increase of at least 50 people occurred in the two-week period between the last two counts.

Love’s organization was not included in the planning for the Home-ARP funding, mainly because her church has disengaged from the Ozarks Alliance to End Homelessness over what Love called differences in ethics and priorities.

“I’ve drawn personal criticism, and our church has drawn criticism, for being critical,” she said, “but good, healthy leadership has to be brave enough to question systems and structures that are not working.”

Love said COVID-19 brought unprecedented numbers of people to the streets, and the numbers that aren’t included in the PIT count are those who live in camps or on the streets or who cannot access shelter.

“The city’s PIT count made it appear as if there were only 66 people without shelter that particular night, and that is very much not the case,” she said.

Love said a 13-room noncongregant shelter does not begin to meet a dire need. Homeless people need a place to exist in the daytime, too, year round, she said.

She pointed out that businesses are bearing uneven weight from the problem.

“Business owners have every reason to be frustrated because they are the de facto solution,” she said. “It’s not fair to them.”

But she said their frustrations should be directed at systems, rather than at people who are suffering.

“We have to place blame appropriately,” she said. “That means that we also have to put some blame on the lack of solutions, shelters and options in this community.”

Adam Bodendieck, director of homeless services for Community Partnership of the Ozarks, the lead agency for the Ozarks Alliance to End Homelessness, said the Home-ARP plan addresses bottlenecks that exist in the process of moving people out of homelessness.

“The city has done a lot of consultations with a lot of different groups, along with surveys and looking at multiple data streams to figure out what the needs are, what the gaps are and what the preferences are from service providers and other groups,” he said.

He noted two key needs to address to reduce bottlenecks in moving people out of homelessness: temporary noncongregant shelters for families and others with special needs, and affordable housing at the other end. “It’s an opportunity to make some big changes and enhance a system that needs to be expanded.”

Bodendieck called unprecedented funding streams from federal sources a silver lining to the dark clouds of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everyone needs to realize this is a chance to effect some real long-term change and to really make a difference in the issue of homelessness locally,” he said. “I remain optimistic – I always do. I have to."

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