Philly budget carves out extra support for low-income families facing homelessness

Philadelphia's Office of Homeless Services is in line to get $800,000 to keep families from becoming homeless. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia's Office of Homeless Services is in line to get $800,000 to keep families from becoming homeless. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Barring a last-minute budget amendment, the city’s Office of Homeless Services will have an extra $800,000 next fiscal year to help low-income families on the brink of homelessness.

While that’s less than 1% of the office’s annual budget, it would be a considerable bump in funding for its prevention efforts. Homeless Services spent $2.5 million on those during the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Officials estimate the new money could save up to 400 more families from sleeping in homeless shelters. The program helped 1,100 families in 2019.

“These are families whose family economies have virtually no elasticity, so a little bit of assistance goes a long way,” said the office’s executive director, Liz Hersh.

The program, offered for the last three years, provides cash assistance to families facing eviction so they can stay in their homes. Participants can also get help with security deposits on new places or with covering overdue utility bills.

The average award is $3,000.

The city recently sent Geneva Green’s landlord a $900 rent check so her family of four could stay in its Mount Airy apartment.

Money was already really tight. It became impossibly tight after Green’s husband lost his side job.

“It was stressful because the kids were still in school. We didn’t know if we were gonna make ends meet. We didn’t know if we were going to be put in a shelter — if we were going to stay as a family,” she said.

The family is still struggling financially, but Green is relieved to have a roof over her head while playing catch-up on rent and other bills.

City officials believe that eliminating or reducing the time children spend in homeless shelters can help intergenerational poverty, a characteristic often tied to negative long-term outcomes such as poor nutrition and lack of educational and economic opportunity.

“The research shows that children who have experienced homelessness —  if they don’t have a kind of a protective circle around them and if the duration of their homelessness isn’t brief — that the likelihood statistically is that they will be poorer over the course of their life, that they will have more mental health problems,” said Hersh.

More than 5,700 Philadelphians have experienced homelessness in 2019, whether that’s meant sleeping on the street, or in a shelter, or bunking with a family or friend.

Many of them live in deep poverty, defined as earning less than 50 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, deep poverty means bringing in less than $12,000 a year.

City Council could pass the next budget as early as Thursday. The allocation is likely to stay put because it was brokered by the Kenney administration and the council, according to a mayoral spokesman.

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