Advocates for homeless people cheered the expansion of a state rental-assistance program in March, but now the program is at or near capacity in King and Pierce counties.
The King County operator of a state-funded rental-assistance program for homeless people says enrollments have nearly reached maximum capacity and without additional funding it will be forced to turn new clients away.
Dan Wise, who oversees the Housing and Essential Needs (HEN) program for Catholic Community Services (CCS) of Western Washington, says 600 new clients have enrolled since March, when the state Legislature expanded the pool of people eligible for the program.
“Most of them are people who previously could not access the program,” said Wise. “It’s great that they can, but without additional funds we’re essentially closing the program off to others who need this service to get off the streets.”
Passed in March, the bill eliminated policies that barred people enrolled in a state cash-assistance program for elderly and disabled from accessing HEN benefits. But the state legislature did not move to increase funding for the program with the change.
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As a result, CCS will start the new fiscal year this month at capacity and can’t sign up new clients.
It’s not alone. HEN operators up and down the Puget Sound say they’re experiencing similar high volumes of applications since the bill passed, straining available resources. The subsidy program has become more important as the numbers of homeless people across the region have increased, and authorities have begun leaning on rental-assistance programs to ease the crisis.
The HEN program helps people who are living on the streets or at risk of losing their homes, typically offering about $700 in temporary rental assistance for up to a year.
Charlene Hamblen, executive director of Share & Care House, which manages the HEN program in Pierce County, says the program in that county is nearing capacity, but it will accept applications in hope of eventually finding clients a slot.
That process is slow, she said, and a potential client’s year of eligibility may expire before a space opens up.
Both Hamblen and Wise say additional funding from the state is needed, and they are making appeals to the governor’s office and advocate groups. Jim Baumgart, policy adviser to Gov. Jay Inslee, said the state is in the early stages of evaluating the impact of the legislation.
Tedd Kelleher, head of the state Commerce Department’s housing-assistance unit, said despite the complications, the bill has improved the HEN program by making it more accessible.
“The issue is not that there are more eligible people,” he said. “The issue is that resource-wise this is a zero sum game and that there are simply more people who are in a situation where they need those resources.”
The state currently spends about $29.3 million on the HEN subsidy, making it one of the largest of several types of rental-assistance programs in the state. But advocates say that still isn’t enough to meet the need.
Michele Thomas, director of policy and advocacy at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, acknowledged there are difficulties with capacity, but she said there’s always been a substantial need for housing resources. What’s more, there’s enthusiasm at the state legislature to support the HEN program in the next session, she said.
“Things happen in steps,” she said. “The bill fixed a long-standing problem, and just as important, it now gives us an opportunity to show people how deep the need is.”
The program is not without its problems. A Seattle Times investigation showed that due to lax oversight the subsidy was used to pay for rooms in potentially dangerous rental properties.