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Archive for February, 2009

A Chicago homeless man is attempting to run for office but is facing resistance because he is homeless and does not have a permanent address.  This article highlights the fact that homeless individuals have every right that those that are housed do and that no one should ever be discriminated against because of their housing status.

02/20/09 07:35 AM

Associated Press Writer

A suburban Chicago man barred from running for the village board because he is homeless isn’t giving up trying to get on the ballot.

Daniel Fore and his attorneys on Thursday filed both a petition seeking a judicial review of the decision and an emergency motion for expedited hearing with the Cook County Circuit Court.

The team hopes for a ruling on the matter by March 6, ahead of the March 16 start of early voting, said Larry Griffin, an attorney for the firm Kirkland and Ellis who represents Fore pro bono.

Oak Park’s electoral board voted 2-1 last week to bar Fore from the April 7 ballot. A message left for an Oak Park spokesman was not immediately returned Thursday afternoon.

Two Oak Park residents, Randy Gillett and Richard Newman, challenged Fore’s candidacy, claiming a person without a fixed address cannot run for office or register to vote.

But Fore’s attorneys say the electoral board’s decision violates Illinois law and nothing in it bars homeless people from ballot access just because they’re homeless.

Cook County Clerk David Orr agrees, saying in a statement he believes state law supports Fore’s case.

“Just as homeless voters deserve the right to cast ballots, homeless candidates have a right to run for office,” Orr said. “At a time when more and more Americans are losing their homes, it is imperative they not also lose access to full participation in our democracy – either as voters or officeholders.”

Orr’s support is key, Griffin said.

“I think his perspective is obviously valuable,” Griffin said. “We appreciate that he sees, as we do, that Dan has a right to run.”

Fore collected 800 signatures from Oak Park residents, almost double the amount he needed to be placed on the ballot, Griffin said.

Fore is also represented by the Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

http://www.buffalonews.com/260/story/585039.html

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“Concert from the Heart”, a benefit concert for the City Mission and Food Bank will take place on March 17th at 8pm at Kleinhans Music Hall.  The Buffalo News did a short piece on it the other day:

News Staff Reporter

It figures to be among the most eclectic events in Buffalo musical annals.

American Federation of Musicians Local 92 and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra will team with the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame to present “Concert From the Heart,” a March 17 benefit for the Buffalo City Mission and the Food Bank of Western New York.

The 8 p. m. performance in Kleinhans Music Hall will feature Hall of Famers Lance Diamond, Van Taylor and his touring band Taylor Made Jazz and — representing the historic Colored Musicians Club — the George Scott Big Band. The Old School B Boys, with Mark Mazur and his Little Big Band, will be special guests.

All of it will be backed by the BPO with guest conductor Paul Ferington.

Among the greats whose music will be highlighted: Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Neil Diamond, Barry White and Marvin Gaye.

“It will be a historic event, reaching across boundaries,” said Rick Matthews, Buffalo Music Hall of Fame president.

“The proceeds will go to two organizations at an unprecedented level — tens of thousands,” added Ron Daniels, Local 92 president.

For the City Mission and the Food Bank, the fundraiser could hardly come at a better time.

As the recession has deepened, “the need for food is growing tremendously; it’s up over 11 percent from last year,” said Michael J. Billoni, Food Bank marketing director.

Stuart Harper, executive director of the City Mission, which is also dealing with rising demand, spoke of the evening’s eclectic music as “kind of like the people who come to our door.”

A pre-concert performance by the Bar Room Buzzards will begin at 7.

There also will be a post-concert dance featuring the Jim Tudini Big Band.

Tickets will be $25 and are available at the Kleinhans box office, 885-5000, and Doris Records, 286 E. Ferry St., 883-2410.

Seating will be open.

http://www.buffalonews.com/cityregion/story/587605.html


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Here’s an article that counters some of the attacks on Henrietta Hughes, a homeless woman who spoke at a town hall meeting that President Obama attended about a week ago.  The author “Cara” highlights the way that many people critical of social welfare focus solely on individual responsibility (even when virtually nothing is known about the person’s history) and neglect to examine the larger, systematic inequalities in our economy that impoverishes many people, like Hughes.  In addition, Hughes’ statement highlights the primary need of homeless individuals: housing first.

Posted by Cara, Feministe at 8:58 AM on February 16, 2009.

For those who have not heard of Henrietta Hughes, she is a homeless woman who stood up at a town hall meeting and told Barack Obama that she is unemployed and has been forced her to live in her car.  She further pleaded with the president to do something to ensure that people like her had housing:

“I have an urgent need, unemployment and homelessness, a very small vehicle for my family and I to live in,” she said. “The housing authority has two years’ waiting lists, and we need something more than the vehicle and the parks to go to. We need our own kitchen and our own bathroom. Please help.”

Now, Michelle Malkin has decided to publicly mock her with taunts like “If she had more time, she probably would have remembered to ask Obama to fill up her gas tank, too.”  She then went on to say:

Hughes didn’t explain the cause of her financial turmoil. Obama didn’t ask. And if we conservatives dare to question the circumstances — and the underlying assumption that it is government’s (that is, taxpayers’) role to bail her out — we’ll be lambasted as cruel haters of the downtrodden.

[. . .]

Well, pardon my unbending belief in fairness and personal responsibility, but why should my tax dollars go to feed the housing entitlement beast?

Indeed, why should housing be considered a right?  After all, what does my housing say about my personal class status and how much better I am than other people, if there aren’t those other people out there who don’t have a place to live at all?

The worst part is that Malkin isn’t alone.  From Limbaugh falsely saying that Hughes “ask[ed] for a car” to others claiming that Hughes is “milking the system,” there’s no shortage of people who want to bring down the woman who had the potential to a far more sympathetic Joe the Plumber — an everyday American who is actually negatively affected by the economic policies of our government.

And they can get away with it!  I just, honestly, do not understand.  Are people like Malkin really so privileged and entitled themselves that they just do not comprehend the very concept of housing not owned by the person living in it — and that therefore “I need a place to live” does not equal “buy me a new house, please” — or do they just really think that no, if you’re not as fortunate as the rest of us, you really do deserve to live on the street, and as a neighbor I have absolutely no responsibility for what happens to you?

On second thought, I don’t know that I want the answer to that.

Via Womanist Musings

http://www.alternet.org/blogs/peek/127177

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PPG’s 2009 Forum on Restoring Progressivity and Fairness in our Tax System.

Ron Deutsch, Executive Director, New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness, will be speaking.

Tuesday February 17th at 4:00 pm

Cornell ILR, 237 Main Street, 12th floor


Please RSVP to ppgbuffalo@gmail.com asap.  Thank you to those who already signed-up.

Flier

Join the campaign for Fair Share Tax Reform!

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The National Low Income Housing Coalition released a statement the other day concerning the lack of funding for affordable housing.  The economic recession will hit low-income families and individuals who can barely afford the already high fair market rents hard and could put thousands of them out on the street.  This article also refocuses our attention on the root cause of homelessness: poverty.

February 5, 2009

For Immediate Release: February 4, 2009

For More Information: Sheila Crowley 540-907-2993 (cell); sheila@nlihc.org

Statement from Sheila Crowley, President, National Low Income Housing Coalition, on Senate passage of $15,000 homebuyer tax credit

“If the country can afford to subsidize over a million families no matter what their income to buy new houses, surely we can afford to prevent a huge increase in the number of people who lose their homes altogether and become homeless.”

This evening, the U.S. Senate adopted an amendment to the pending American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that will give every homebuyer this year, no matter his or her income, a $15,000 tax credit. The cost is $18.50 billion. The amendment did not include an offset, so the cost is added to the total cost of the bill. The amendment passed by voice vote without a single Senator raising an objection.

Yet, the same Senate has not included any funding in the bill that will produce a single new unit of housing that is affordable to the poorest families in the country. The Senate bill does not capitalize the National Housing Trust Fund to build and rehabilitate rental homes that are affordable to low wage workers, the unemployed, the disabled, and the elderly. Nor does the Senate bill provide funding for housing vouchers that would help low income families afford to rent existing housing in the market.

Both items have been sought by advocates for low income people to prevent a surge in homelessness due to the foreclosure crisis and the recession. The two items together would cost $13.60 billion, and provide 400,000-500,000 poor families with decent homes they could afford. Any increase in unemployment causes the poverty level to rise. One in ten people who are poor will lose their homes unless steps are taken to prevent them from becoming homeless. An unemployment rate of 9% is predicted to result in at least new 800,000 people, including children and seniors, becoming homeless adding the existing homeless population.

The bill does include $1.5 billion for emergency housing assistance for people facing homelessness, an important element to a homelessness prevention strategy. But permanent affordable homes are required to assure housing stability for the lowest income households.

Capitalizing the National Housing Trust Fund is also an economic stimulus; housing construction and remodeling are labor and material intensive, thus creating jobs, increasing the sales of building and home decorating goods, and generating new state and local tax revenue. The construction of each new multi-family rental unit produces 1.16 new jobs and every $100,000 spent on home remodeling produces 1.11 new jobs.

If the country can afford to subsidize over a million families no matter what their income to buy new houses, surely we can afford to prevent a huge increase in the number of people who lose their homes altogether and become homeless.(emphasis added)

I strongly urge the Congress to reexamine its spending plans in the Economic Recovery bill in light of this expensive tax cut and do more to help those who are hurt the most by the economic crisis. It is simple fairness.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition is dedicated solely to achieving socially just public policy that assures people with the lowest incomes in the United States have affordable and decent homes. www.nlihc.org

http://www.nlihc.org/detail/article.cfm?article_id=5788&id=48

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This article from MSNBC covers a major problem facing non-profits offering supportive services/shelter to homeless individuals: funds for their operations are being cut as demand for their services increases.  The current economic crisis has prompted state and federal officials to cut non-profit funding to close budget deficits.  At the same time it has pushed larger numbers of hard hit working class families and individuals to seek supportive services and shelter as jobs, wages, and benefits are being cut.

Providers to the poor try to stretch meager resources to meet growing need

John Brecher / msnbc.com
By Kari Huus
Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 2:14 p.m. ET, Fri., Jan. 30, 2009

SEATTLE – As snowstorms blew into this Northwest city and the economy iced over in December, the occupants of a shelter nestled among industrial buildings on the north side prayed for divine intervention.
“We were hoping for the Christmas miracle,” says Glen Dennis, 41, who was working his way through a residential drug-treatment program at the CityTeam Ministries shelter. Dennis and the other 11 guys in the long-term program —dubbed the “disciples” — also worked each day to prepare for some 50 to 60 overnight shelter guests, and dish up free hot meals to about 100 people. “We kept doing what we were doing, and hoped someone would come by and drop off a big check.”

But the check did not come — even after a coalition of other shelters, nonprofits and local churches tried to pull together a rescue package to keep the shelter open. On Dec. 27, CityTeam Ministries, based in San Jose, Calif., closed the Seattle facility — leaving scores of people to seek food, shelter and sobriety elsewhere. For Dennis, who had been free of crack cocaine for nearly 11 months, the upheaval led to another painful relapse out on the streets.

“It’s a real loss,” says Herb Pfifner, executive director of the Union Gospel Mission shelter in downtown Seattle. “We’re all scrambling to try to handle the growth of homelessness because of the economic situation …  and then the closing of another mission adds more pressure.”

The CityTeam closure is a piece in the expanding problem of homelessness across the nation: Shelters and related services for the homeless are facing funding shortfalls as the downturn takes its toll on state budgets and corporate donations. And while individual donors in many cases are keeping up gifts — or even digging a little deeper for charities that help with urgent needs like food and shelter — the service providers say they are faced with a rapidly growing demand from people losing jobs and homes in the economic crisis.

Less funding, more demand
“A downturn in (overall) funding in this case is accompanied by a surge in demand, so a homeless shelter, food pantry, or job-training program is going to feel it first,” says Chuck Bean, executive director of Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington, in the District of Columbia. “Even if they have 100 percent of their budget compared to last year, they now see a 50 percent surge in demand. Then (they) get into the tough decisions: Do you thin the soup, or shorten the line?”

Even as census-takers fan out in cities across the country this week in an attempt to count homeless populations, advocates and experts point to a bevy of evidence that homelessness is rising and will continue to, most notably among families with children.

Shelters across the country report that more people are seeking emergency shelter and more are being turned away. In a report published in December, 330 school districts identified the same number or more homeless students in the first few months of the school year than they identified in the entire previous year. Meantime, demand is sharply up at soup kitchens, an indication of deepening hardship and potential homelessness.

“Everything we are seeing is indicating an increase,” says Laurel Weir, policy director at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “And homelessness tends to lag the economy. So we’re probably seeing the tip of the iceberg here.”

In the foreclosure crisis, the people being displaced from homes won’t likely be on the street immediately, explains Michael Stoops, director of National Coalition for the Homeless.

“The people who have lost homes or tenants in homes that were foreclosed … have downsized, and if that doesn’t work they will move in with family and friends,” says Stoops. “After a while, they will move into their RV in a state campground. The next step is a car. And the worst nightmare for a working, middle-class person or even a wealthy person who has never experienced homelessness is knocking on a shelter door.”

Services teeter on brink
As the case of Seattle’s CityTeam shelter illustrates, many nonprofits serving the poor are working on a shoestring, even in better times. Seattle-area donations to the shelter had to be supplemented from general funds, said Jeff Cherniss, chief financial officer of CityTeam, which operates shelters and food programs in five other U.S. cities.

“We were hoping (the Seattle shelter) could become self-sustaining,” says Cherniss. CityTeam Ministries, a Christian organization funded by donations from individuals, corporations and churches, kept the Seattle facility afloat with help from its general fund for most of a decade, but the 2008 crisis prompted them to retrench.

Every major source of funding is under pressure in the current environment: Charitable foundations — which rely on corporate profits for their seed money and investments to preserve and build those funds — have been forced to pull back grants after taking a massive hit as corporate earnings faltered and stocks plunged.  The National Council of Foundations recently estimated that philanthropic foundation endowments have lost $200 billion in value during the economic crisis.

A few of the largest foundations have, despite losses, promised to maintain or give at higher levels in the face of the crisis. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation this week said it would increase its giving to 7 percent of its assets from 5 percent. And the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced three gifts totaling $34 million to help homeowners in Chicago avoid foreclosure and keep renters in homes.

Still, the casualties are mounting. Among them: Atlanta nonprofit Nicholas House, which closed a shelter for families in mid-January so it could safely keep other housing services open. Nearly all corporate donors gave to the organization at lower levels this year, says Dennis Bowman, executive director of the 26-year-old agency. The final straw came when a corporate donation ended, and was not renewed.

“It was directly because of the economy — the business has suffered in this economy, and so can’t provide the funding, which was well over $100,000 a year,” says Bowman.

The organization is scrambling to find other options for the 12 families — 45 people in all — who lived there, by squeezing them into other parts of its own programs or openings with other nonprofit programs.
In Washington, D.C., where Fannie and Freddie had been the largest corporate donors, dozens of organizations were up in the air as government auditors reviewed the corporations’ records, including their charity operations.

Linda Dunphy, executive director of Doorways for Women and Families, a shelter program that has been receiving funding from Freddie Mac since 1996, says the takeover of the mortgage company threw a promised $300,000 grant into limbo.

Meantime, Doorways watched other substantial corporate donations drain away — including some $50,000 that had been coming through an annual walkathon from financial companies Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch.

Fortunately, when the review of Fannie and Freddie’s charitable operations ended in late December, the Freddie Mac grant came through for Doorways, averting the need to shut down a family shelter — for the next six months, at least. “But then we face a whole new fiscal year, and our concerns about what is going to happen at (Freddie Mac Foundation) and whether they can continue to keep giving at the level they have been giving,” says Dunphy.

The Alternative House for homeless mothers in northern Virginia was not as lucky. Freddie Mac had been giving $35,000 to $60,000 a year to this nonprofit. The Freddie Mac money was spent on providing developmental assistance for the babies, who are often behind because of their chaotic beginnings. Last week, Judith Dittman, who runs the program, got word that the funding was cut.

States awash in red ink
Up to now, another major source of funding for nonprofits providing homeless services came from state budgets. But entering 2009, at least 45 states faced budget deficits, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which estimates combined state budget gaps for the remainder of this fiscal year and state fiscal years 2010 and 2011 at more than $350 billion. The trend bodes very badly for programs that benefit the poor and homeless. The leading example of state budget problems is California, which has eliminated funding for emergency housing assistance this year as it struggles to pare its $40 billion deficit.

In Ventura County just north of Los Angeles, the cut of about $60,000 delivered an immediate blow to three homeless operations. The largest, a winter shelter run by St. Vincent de Paul that provides beds for 100 people, was forced to cut 30 nights from its schedule.

“Because they operate on a shoestring, it’s a significant hit to them,” says Karen Schulkin, program coordinator for homeless services in the county. “The winter shelter at the National Guard Armory can only stay open for the number of days they have funding for.”

Local government funding often provides seed money for nonprofits, who leverage it to drum up foundation money and other donations. So, according to Bean of the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington, the local deficit — about $1.5 billion in the case of D.C. and surrounding areas — could present an even bigger problem than the uncertainty over the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Foundation.

“This will put a huge strain on the ability to invest in the safety net. …The challenge for a lot of nonprofits is that local government support will be down, foundations will be down,” says Bean. “The question will be what happens with individual donations.”

To be sure, out of the crisis come tales of inspired giving as communities scramble to raise new funding. The town of Danville in southern Virginia rallied to reopen a shelter that closed at the end of December after 15 years in operation.  A drive prompted a $20,000 anonymous gift, which was more than matched by dozens of other local contributions. By Jan. 22, the money and a new director were in place to reopen the 20-bed shelter—offering some reprieve, at least, in a town with an estimated 150 homeless.

“The people of Danville … opened up their hearts and pocketbooks with $23,100 in matching funds,” reports Pastor Donnie Anderson of the Riveroak Church of God, who spearheaded the fundraising. “We are so grateful! The shelter is open as House of Hope and is ready for any who may need a warm place to stay and hot meals to eat.”

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/28916152/

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David Robinson over at Buffalo News wrote this article a couple weeks back about the thousands of jobs that the region has lost in the last couple  months and the thousands more that will be lost in the coming months.  Keep in mind that the loss of a job was one of the most common reasons cited for homelessness in Buffalo.
01/25/09 07:06 AM
BUFFALO’S BUSINESS

So much for all the talk about the Buffalo Niagara region being a good place to ride out the recession.

While it took about nine months longer to hit here than it did across the country, thanks to our stable but subdued housing market, the steep decline we’ve weathered since September proves that when the national economy turns sour, there’s no place to hide.

“It took a long time for the recession to arrive in Western New York,” says John Slenker, the state Labor Department’s regional economist in Buffalo.

And arrive it has. The region in December endured its biggest monthly job loss since March 2002, when Western New York still was mired in the last recession. The December job losses were so severe — 7,600 positions vanished from December 2007 to December 2008 — that the region now has fewer jobs than it’s had in any December since 1995.

Even Slenker, whose job it is to put together the monthly employment data for the region, was surprised by the severity of the December decline. “This was a larger downturn than I was expecting,” he says.

But this is an economy that’s being wracked by fear, in addition to the fallout from the housing bubble, the vice-like credit crunch and the overall economic malaise it’s creating.

Consumers aren’t buying, fearful that their jobs might be in jeopardy or their pay might be cut, if it hasn’t been already. Companies aren’t investing as much and looking to save money wherever they can.

Executives are thinking a lot like Timothy

T. Tevens, the president and chief executive officer at Columbus McKinnon Corp. The Amherst material handling equipment maker’s sales have started to weaken, with revenues slipping by 5 percent, excluding an October acquisition. New-order bookings slowed at a “mid-to-high single-digit” pace, he said.

So Columbus McKinnon has been cutting back, trimming 200 jobs in the final three months of 2008. And Tevens is poised to pull the trigger on even deeper cuts this quarter if the slowdown continues. “That’s what I consider to be an initial cut,” he says.

Another 200 jobs could be slashed. Hiring and wages could be frozen. The company match on worker’s 401(k) plans could be in jeopardy. Health benefits could be reduced. Several plants are being looked at for consolidation.

It’s like that all over. “Most businesses are looking at their sales and they’re also looking at the general economy,” Slenker says. “They’re saying ‘Where can we tighten our belt? Even if we’re doing well, we’re going to cut back because we don’t know what the future holds.’ ”

That’s why Slenker expects the local job losses to worsen in January.

Canisius College professors George Palumbo and Mark Zaporowski expect the cost-cutting to spread to local governments, which so far have been reluctant to scale back even as the region’s population keeps dropping.

That could mean reduced services, lower pay for government workers and possibly fewer agencies operating in the region, the professors say in a recent report on the local economy. And they continue to stress that economic development efforts need to focus on initiatives that make the region more productive and competitive, such as by reducing energy, regulatory and transportation costs.

Still, Slenker says workers shouldn’t give up hope if they lose their jobs. More than 20 percent of the companies surveyed by the Labor Department last month said they hired new workers in December, often to replace employees who left their jobs.

“There are still going to be opportunities,” Slenker says. “You’ve just got to look harder.”

drobinson@buffnews.com

http://www.buffalonews.com/145/story/559521.html

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Several weeks ago a number of homeless outreach workers as well as individuals from the community braved sub-zero nights to inform homeless people on the street of warming shelters that they had worked with the mayor to open up. Joy Tedeschi helped organize this effort and we had the chance to interview her about her experiences those nights as well as what she and the WNY Coalition for the Homeless are doing to get plans in place for future cold weather emergencies.

Interview with Joy Tedeschi on the late-night cold weather outreach efforts from Jan 14-16.

Who came with you to do the outreach?

A number of agencies and community volunteers came with us to be a part of the night outreach teams. Individuals from the Matt Urban Center, Lake Shore outreach workers, Crisis Services Outreach workers, V.A. Homeless Outreach team, Dale Zuchlewski (two nights) of City Hall, Hispanic United Supervisor of Supportive Housing, CEO of Catholic Charities, Disciples from the City Mission program, two professors and two students of the UB Masters of Social Work Program, Gerard Place Case Manager and a number of other individuals from the community.

What areas did you go to?

We covered all of the downtown area parks, viaducts, bus stations (both the train and bus stations), Old Train Terminal, MLK Park, Chippewa Area. We covered much of the city, both the East and West Sides, especially the first night as we had four teams. Thursday we had three teams and Friday we had one team. Each night we ended at the Harbor House.

What did you offer to the homeless individuals you encountered?

We offered transportation to the warming centers, or if they declined, blankets and warm clothing.

What was the response like from the homeless individuals you interacted with? Were they receptive? Did they identify any other needs that night?

The ones whom we were able to engage were receptive and accepted our help. There were a few who wished to be left alone. However, a huge part of the population that was missed are the squatters. Due to safety concerns, we did not enter abandoned buildings. One reason a plan should be established is so these squatters can be made aware of the warming centers. The other identified need was what would happen when the warming centers close.

What was your interaction with the city government like? Were they receptive to what you were doing?

We were happy to hear the warming centers would be opened. Unfortunately, it took members of the Coalition advocating for it to happen. Why did it take advocating and why did it take so long for the centers to be opened? We hear on the news how animals need to be brought inside to be sheltered from cold, yet human beings are left to fend for themselves. When we had power outages the centers were opened up for those with powerless homes, yet it took advocating to open up the warming centers for those who do not even have homes. Are those who are able to afford homes and pay utilities seen as more worthy to help? I don’t believe our elected officials think this way, but that is the perception of those who are most vulnerable. The reality is, those who are homeless are not much different than those who are “housed.” As HAWNY reported in 2008, the primary reasons for homelessness are Family problems, mental illness, substance abuse and job loss. These issues occur at every income level; the difference is the social, emotional and financial support networks an individual has.

What kind of plans (if any) did they have in place for very cold nights like those?

None that I am aware of.

Will they be doing anything different in the future?

Yes, we are working to establish an emergency plan with the city and county officials, along with the Red Cross and a number of other agencies.

What plans are you developing for the future?

Our plan will include designated warming centers to be opened at a bench marked temperature. Outreach workers will assist in transporting clients to the warming centers and engage them to ensure when the centers close that they have a plan for shelter (if they wish for assistance). Most importantly, no one will be left to “survive” the deadly temperatures on their own.

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This piece from the New York Times details how most states are either not increasing or are actually decreasing the number of people receiving TANF, despite the prospect of a deep recession in the coming year.


Fabrizio Costantini for The New York Times
Published: February 1, 2009

WASHINGTON — Despite soaring unemployment and the worst economic crisis in decades, 18 states cut their welfare rolls last year, and nationally the number of people receiving cash assistance remained at or near the lowest in more than 40 years.

The trends, based on an analysis of new state data collected by The New York Times, raise questions about how well a revamped welfare system with great state discretion is responding to growing hardships.

Michigan cut its welfare rolls 13 percent, though it was one of two states whose October unemployment rate topped 9 percent. Rhode Island, the other, had the nation’s largest welfare decline, 17 percent.

Of the 12 states where joblessness grew most rapidly, eight reduced or kept constant the number of people receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the main cash welfare program for families with children. Nationally, for the 12 months ending October 2008, the rolls inched up a fraction of 1 percent.

The deepening recession offers a fresh challenge to the program, which was passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 amid bitter protest and became one of the most closely watched social experiments in modern memory.

The program, which mostly serves single mothers, ended a 60-year-old entitlement to cash aid, replacing it with time limits and work requirements, and giving states latitude to discourage people from joining the welfare rolls. While it was widely praised in the boom years that followed, skeptics warned it would fail the needy when times turned tough.

Supporters of the program say the flat caseloads may reflect a lag between the loss of a job and the decision to seek help. They also say the recession may have initially spared the low-skilled jobs that many poor people take.

But critics argue that years of pressure to cut the welfare rolls has left an obstacle-ridden program that chases off the poor, even when times are difficult.

Even some of the program’s staunchest defenders are alarmed.

“There is ample reason to be concerned here,” said Ron Haskins, a former Republican Congressional aide who helped write the 1996 law overhauling the welfare system. “The overall structure is not working the way it was designed to work. We would expect, just on the face it, that when a deep recession happens, people could go back on welfare.”

“When we started this, Democratic and Republican governors alike said, ‘We know what’s best for our state; we’re not going to let people starve,’ ” said Mr. Haskins, who is now a researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “And now that the chips are down, and unemployment is going up, most states are not doing enough to help families get back on the rolls.”

The program’s structure — fixed federal financing, despite caseload size — may discourage states from helping more people because the states bear all of the increased costs. By contrast, the federal government pays virtually all food-stamp costs, and last year every state expanded its food-stamp rolls; nationally, the food program grew 12 percent.

The clashing trends in some states — more food stamps, but less cash aid — suggest a safety net at odds with itself. Georgia shrank the cash welfare rolls by nearly 11 percent and expanded food stamps by 17 percent. After years of pushing reductions, Congress is now considering a rare plan that would subsidize expansions of the cash welfare rolls. The economic stimulus bills pending in Congress would provide matching grants — estimated at $2.5 billion over two years — to states with caseload expansions.

Born from Mr. Clinton’s pledge to “end welfare as we know it,” the new program brought furious protests from people who predicted the poor would suffer. Then millions of people quickly left the rolls, employment rates rose and child poverty plunged.

But the economy of the late 1990s was unusually strong, and even then critics warned that officials placed too much stress on caseload reduction. With benefits harder to get, a small but growing share of families was left with neither welfare nor work and fell deeper into destitution.

“TANF is not an especially attractive option for most people,” said Linda Blanchette, a top welfare official in Pennsylvania, which cut its rolls last year by 6 percent. “People really do view it as a last resort.”

The data collected by The Times is the most recent available for every state and includes some similar programs financed solely by states, to give the broadest picture of cash aid. In a year when 1.1 million jobs disappeared, 18 states cut the rolls, 20 states expanded them, and caseloads in 12 states remained essentially flat, fluctuating less than 3 percent. (In addition, caseloads in the District of Columbia rose by nearly 5 percent.)

The rolls rose 7 percent in the West, stayed flat in the South, and fell in the Northeast by 4 percent and Midwest by 5 percent.

Seven states increased their rolls by double digits. Five states, including Texas and Michigan, made double-digit reductions. Of the 10 states with the highest child poverty rates, eight kept caseloads level or further reduced the rolls.

“This is evidence of a strikingly unresponsive system,” said Mark H. Greenberg, co-director of a poverty institute at the Georgetown University law school. Some administrators disagree.

“We’re still putting people to work,” said Larry Temple, who runs the job placement program for welfare recipients in Texas, where the rolls dropped 15 percent. “A lot of the occupations that historically we’ve been able to put the welfare people in are still hiring. Home health is a big one.”

Though some welfare recipients continue to find jobs, nationally their prospects have worsened. Joblessness among women ages 20 to 24 without a high school degree rose to 23.9 percent last year, from 17.9 percent the year before, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some analysts offer a different reason for the Texas caseload declines: a policy that quickly halts all cash aid to recipients who fail to attend work programs.

“We’re really just pushing families off the program,” said Celia Hagert of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a research and advocacy group in Austin, Tex.

Some officials predict the rolls will yet rise. “There’s typically a one- to two-year lag between an economic downturn and an uptick in the welfare rolls,” said David Hansell, who oversees the program in New York State, where the rolls fell 4 percent.

Indeed, as the recession has worsened in recent months, some states’ rolls have just started to grow. Georgia’s caseload fell until July 2008, but has since risen 5 percent. Still, as of October the national caseloads remained down 70 percent from their peak in the early 1990s under the predecessor program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

Nationally, caseloads fell every year from 1994 to 2007, to about 4.1 million people, a level last seen in 1964. The federal total for 2008 has not been published, but the Times analysis of state data suggests they remained essentially flat.

Some recent caseload reduction has been driven by a 2006 law that required states to place more recipients in work programs, which can be costly and difficult to run. It threatened states with stiff fines but eased the targets for states that simply cut the rolls.

“Some states decided they had to get tougher,” said Sharon Parrott of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington research and advocacy group.

Rhode Island was among them. Previously, the state had reduced but not eliminated grants to families in which an adult had hit a 60-month limit. Last year, it closed those cases, removing 2,200 children from the rolls.

Under the new federal accounting rules, that made it easier to meet statistical goals and protected the state from fines.

Michigan also imposed new restrictions, forcing applicants to spend a month in a job-search program before collecting benefits. Critics say the up-front requirement poses obstacles to the neediest applicants, like those with physical or mental illnesses.

“I think that’s a legitimate complaint,” said Ismael Ahmed, director of the Michigan Department of Human Services, though he blamed the federal rules. The program “was drawn for an economy that is not the economy most states are in.”

While food stamps usually grow faster than cash aid during recessions, the current contrast is stark. Many officials see cash aid in a negative light, as a form of dependency, while encouraging the use of food stamps and calling them nutritional support.

“Food assistance is not considered welfare,” said Donalda Carlson, a Rhode Island welfare administrator.

Nationally, the temporary assistance program gives states $16.8 billion a year — the same amount they received in the early 1990s, when caseloads were more than three times as high as they are now. Mr. Haskins, the program’s architect, said that obliged them to ensure the needy could return to the rolls. “States have plenty of money,” he said.

But most states have shifted the money into other programs — including child care and child welfare — and say they cannot shift it back without causing other problems.

Oregon expanded its cash caseload 19 percent last year, so far without major backlash. “That’s the purpose of the program — to be there for that need,” said Vic Todd, a senior state official. But California officials expressed ambivalence about a 6 percent rise in the cash welfare rolls in that state when it is facing a $40 billion deficit. “There’s some fine tuning of the program that needs to occur, to incentivize work,” said John Wagner, the state director of social services.

Among those sanguine about current caseload trends is Robert Rector, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington who is influential with conservative policy makers. He said the program had “reduced poverty beyond anyone’s expectations” and efforts to dilute its rigor would only harm the poor.

“We need to continue with the principle that you give assistance willingly, but you require the individual to prepare for self-sufficiency,” he said.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/02/us/02welfare.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

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