Quality homeless services need sustainable funding
As the end of the legislative session nears and our elected officials are faced with decisions about how to spend the public's money, it is an opportune time to revisit the needs and priorities of the homeless-services sector from the perspective of sustainability.
During the past 12 months, Oahu has seen four new shelters spring up to serve the many unsheltered homeless families with children, couples and adult individuals. The governor and her HEART (Homeless Efforts Achieving Results Together) team deserve much applause for their responsiveness to those urgently in need of shelter. But for nonprofit agencies contracted to operate these new shelters and existing facilities, the challenge is to sustain these services.
Nearly all shelters in Hawaii rely heavily on state funding to operate. Since the late 1990s, emergency shelters have been funded through the state's homeless stipend program based on a $13 per person per day formula. Transitional shelters also have been funded using a monthly stipend based on apartment size and occupants. While this per diem rate of $13 might have provided enough funding when the formula was initiated, today it falls woefully short of paying for services that the state expects shelters to provide.
Even providers like the Institute for Human Services that receive considerable private donor and in-kind support for rent and meals service find it difficult to provide a level of services respectful to its shelter guests on the current per diem rate. Social services, like all goods and services, have witnessed a significant rise in costs during the past eight or so years since the rate was established. Utilities (hot showers for homeless guests) have increased markedly; food and transportation (hot meals) also have seen increases. The necessary but growing demands to provide evaluative documentation to the foundations and state agencies that support organizations like IHS also require increased professional resources. Human resource costs have increased exponentially due to the myriad recruitment regulations, safety training and other necessary paperwork.
As for compensating our dedicated workers, the idea of being unable to pay line staff a respectable wage that can ensure that they do not lose their own housing becomes a troublesome irony given the tight resources available. A recent review of our staff shows that the majority of line workers also work second jobs to make ends meet. Homeless services continue to suffer significantly, because they often are unable to attract and retain skilled and experienced staff. Our staff are working with individuals who have high rates of mental illness, substance abuse, trauma and other physical disabilities. IHS and most of our peer providers are blessed to have dedicated staff who are willing to work with and provide a safe environment for the vulnerable people we serve. But these staff need raises, plain and simple, and they need training and support -- all of which cost money.
IHS has always relied heavily on volunteers and in-kind donations to sustain our operations, as do other new shelters. Donated time and resources are vital in providing a wider array of services, but they only go so far. And while demand for shelter services has continued to grow in the islands, some federal funds have been reduced due to Hawaii's low unemployment rate. Our yearly allotment of federal homeless assistance funding also is not guaranteed, as seen this year in lower-than-normal disbursements.
Last year, the state spent about $8.5 million for homeless services, including $5.8 million to support shelter services, $2.2 million for outreach services and another $500,000 for rent and security deposit grants. The introduction of the House Bill 150 and its Senate equivalent, SB 1917, would double the annual level of funding.
With respect to the provision of high-quality shelter services, IHS barely makes its budget, and some years it doesn't, with its current allocation of $1.5 million. If it weren't for the largess of foundations, businesses and individuals, IHS would have had to close up shop many years ago, or seriously cut back its services. Considering that IHS's real per diem cost of just basic shelter service delivery is closer to $25 per day per person, increases in the state budgets and changes to the formula to reflect real costs are greatly needed.
With the addition of a minimum of four new shelters opening this past year, which likely need more than $5 million annually, shelter funding alone needs a minimum of $12 million. Continued outreach and grant support would put the total needs at $15 million -- minimum. If any other projects are to be opened during the two-year biennium period, further increases are necessary.
To a large degree, the very prosperity that many of us enjoy in Hawaii and that has produced the budget surplus also produces or increases problems such as homelessness. Funding for homeless services can help produce a society that can sustain both our prosperity and the value of compassion and fairness among us all.
Connie Mitchell is executive director of the Institute for Human Services.