By: Peter S. Goodman
April 19, 2010
SAN MATEO, Calif. -- Two years into a merciless downward spiral, Antonio Moore was threatened with living on the street.
Faced with eviction, he was staring last month at the imminent prospect of joining the teeming ranks of the homeless. His last hope was a new $1.5 billion federal program aimed at preventing that fate.
Days after Mr. Moore applied, a check for $775 was on its way to his landlord, enabling him to stay -- at least for now.
Much like the Great Depression, when millions of previously working people came to rely on a new social safety net for their sustenance, a swelling group of formerly middle-class Americans like Mr. Moore, 30, is seeking government aid for the first time. Without help, say economists, many are at risk of slipping permanently into poverty, even as economic conditions improve.
The question is whether the modern-day safety net has enough money and the right initiatives to aid those who need it most. The answer could shape whether a considerable slice of the American population will recover from the trauma of recent years, and how long that will take.
The plight of people like Mr. Moore has little to do with the complex, intertwined causes of homelessness of decades past, like substance abuse, mental illness and domestic violence. The current surge stems directly from the recession: Millions have lost their jobs or suffered a sharp drop in earnings. They have drained their savings, losing the ability to pay their rent.
"Nationally, homelessness has now reached crisis proportions not seen since the Great Depression," says Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
The severity of the situation prompted the Obama administration to create the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing program within the $787 billion economic stimulus package. The program rests on the assumption that intervention is the best course because once people become homeless, the odds and costs of regaining their lives escalate sharply.
"This allows us to reorient a system that is focused on fixing a problem after it happens to preventing the problem," said Shaun Donovan, the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the program. "This is the single most important thing the federal government has ever done on family homelessness. It's a transformative tool."
But a nagging set of questions threatens to constrain the program, say some of the social service agencies administering the money: How should these dollars be distributed, and for whose benefit? In a time of extraordinary need and limited aid, who deserves help?
A similar debate over the fairness of bailing out homeowners has curtailed the administration's efforts to limit foreclosures, say housing experts. Under the homeless prevention program, HUD provides grants to states and local governments that in turn hand money to social service agencies that distribute it into communities. Even as these agencies embrace the program as a crucial source of funds, many complain about mixed messages from the housing department on how to use the money, sowing concerns that vulnerable people may be left out.
On the one hand, HUD tells social service groups that they are supposed to direct prevention dollars only to people who would truly be homeless without aid.
On the other hand, they are supposed to help only those with a good chance to sustain themselves going forward, meaning people who can swiftly resume paying their bills.
"Some communities have read that to mean we should only give it to people who have a job," says Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, an advocacy organization in Washington. "Those are not the people who are likely to become homeless. My fear is that we're going to spend the money and we're still going to have these enormous increases in homelessness. We won't have reached the people who most need it."
Social service agencies must front the money, then apply for government reimbursement, making them reluctant to risk aiding anyone who may later turn up in a shelter -- an outcome that suggests failure.
"People are afraid they will be chastised," said Connie M. Pascale, assistant general counsel at Legal Services of New Jersey, which received $38 million in program funds from the state to operate a telephone hot line. "So they have designed their programs very narrowly."
To Stay in Suburbia
Here in the flatlands of San Mateo, down the peninsula from San Francisco, Roy Perez is the one who decides who deserves help; the deal maker; the man with the checkbook.
A stocky former Marine with a goatee and a master's degree in psychology, he works as an intake manager for the homeless prevention program at Samaritan House, the agency where Mr. Moore went to seek help.
People arrive at his sunny cubicle and describe the bills they cannot pay, the gnawing proximity of the street. Except in cases where he doubts what he is being told -- something that has happened perhaps three times in the last month -- Mr. Perez is inclined to say yes.
"I have to give this money out," he says as he prepares for a day in which he will meet six applicants. "It's stimulus money. People need it. That's basically where I'm coming from. I'm not going to lose a night's sleep over whether I gave it to the right person."
From California to Florida, social service agencies report growing numbers of people who have never previously sought help and are now turning up in homeless shelters after exhausting all options -- from staying with relatives and cramming into cheap motels to sleeping in their cars.
From July to September of last year, the number of people turning to emergency homeless shelters and other transitional housing for the first time increased by 26 percent in seven major metropolitan areas surveyed by HUD. New York had a 32 percent increase. Cleveland suffered a jump of 31 percent.
The number of homeless families expanded last year in 19 of the 25 cities surveyed by the United States Conference of Mayors' Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness.
In much of the economy, a sense of repair is palpable, from tentative expansion on the American factory floor to the first significant job creation in more than two years. But for those out of work long-term, the downward spiral turns. Their job prospects dim as their skills and confidence deteriorate.
Once people lose homes, their odds of regaining normalcy lengthen, say poverty experts.
Simply looking for work -- let alone getting hired -- is harder without a fixed address and access to personal documents. Depression, substance abuse and attendant health problems claim families that lack stable living space and kitchens. Homeless families are a drain on taxpayers, who foot the bill for emergency shelters along with counseling and health care.
In postbubble America, housing is abundant, yet many people cannot afford it. The new program tries to bridge that divide, paying subsidies to landlords to cover rent shortfalls, while adding funds to move people out of shelters and into permanent housing.
At 9:18 in the morning, Dawn Martin sits down opposite Mr. Perez, a look of pained exhaustion on her face.
"We're behind on January and February rent," she says.
Ms. Martin is mortified to be asking for help. She grew up wealthy, with vacations spent on Caribbean cruises. "I had everything I ever wanted," she says.
She and her husband run a house-painting business that has been in his family for three generations. (Martin is her maiden name. She declined to be identified by her married name for fear of embarrassing her husband's family, whose name is emblazoned on his truck.)
They have three boys, a 12-year-old, and 9-year-old twins. At the house they have rented for seven years, on a street lined with well-tended lawns, the walls are covered with photos of her boys in their batting stances.
Until 2008, their painting business was pulling in $100,000 a year, which paid their $2,450-a-month rent and allowed them to buy a trailer on Clear Lake, where they took the boys water-skiing.
But last year, in a weak economy, they earned $38,000. They sold their trailer. They ran through $15,000 in savings. One day last winter, Ms. Martin noticed the refrigerator was nearly empty, and her checking account balance was down to $100. She drove to a county office and applied for food stamps.
"That just broke my heart," she says.
Her father has money to help if it really comes down to it, she acknowledges.
"I don't see him letting his grandkids land on the street," she says, "but he'd hold it over our heads for a long time. That would lower me to a level that I wouldn't want to go."
So she is here, at Samaritan House, filling out the paperwork for the homeless prevention program.
"I made appointments and then canceled," she says. "I finally said, 'I have to. Money's not going to fall out of the trees for us.' I had to swallow my pride."
Ms. Martin and her husband need $4,900 to get out of arrears. The painting business is picking up, she tells Mr. Perez. This gives him confidence they should be able to sustain themselves.
But Samaritan House is on pace to run out of money as soon as next year. So Mr. Perez is in conservation mode. He will call the landlord and seek to extract a promise that he will not evict Ms. Martin and her family in exchange for $3,000.
"Is this family going to be homeless?" Mr. Perez says. "If they get nothing, probably. But if the landlord gets $3,000, probably not."
Who Gets the Help
The discretion wielded by Mr. Perez in determining who receives aid is representative of the overall program. Intent on starting the program quickly, the Obama administration gave considerable latitude to local governments in fashioning their programs, resulting in conspicuous variation. In communities with advanced efforts to address homelessness, the new program has expanded those initiatives. In less-equipped places, the program has stumbled.
"Implementation is all over the place," says Ms. Foscarinis of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
In Detroit, where the unemployment rate exceeds 15 percent, the city chose to broadcast the availability of more than $15 million in housing aid, contrary to the advice of experts at social services agencies who feared an unruly money grab. They counseled that applications for cash assistance be handled by established agencies, like legal aid clinics and shelters.
Instead, in early October, the city invited the public to file paperwork en masse at a downtown convention center. Word spread that money would actually be handed out. More than 30,000 people jammed the facility.
Fights broke out and the police were dispatched to restore order, according to the city. Tens of thousands of applications were submitted by people who were not eligible. In the months since, the city has been plowing through the pile of applications, with needy families living on the edge of homelessness caught within the crush of paperwork.
In Pittsburgh, the city chose to set up a call center with surrounding Allegheny County to log preliminary applications. The center was immediately swamped, resulting in a waiting list for help that now exceeds 700 applicants.
The city of Boise, Idaho, has yet to allocate the roughly $750,000 it received for the program through a state grant, bringing accusations from social service groups that local leaders were showing disregard for laid-off workers.
Boise officials say they have tried to get the money out quickly, but have been hindered by rules that bar them from granting money to the local housing authority, the only organization able to manage such a large-scale program.
"Idaho is one of those states that just does not have highly developed social service delivery systems," said Jim Birdsall, manager of Boise's housing and community development department.
The Obama administration portrays such troubles as inevitable.
"Anytime you have a new effort, particularly of this scale, there are going to be implementation issues," said Mr. Donovan. "There's going to be some growing pains."
Over all, he added, the program had helped 64,000 families, as of the end of December. All of the money has now been allocated by state and local governments.
A Spartan Home for Now
On a recent afternoon, Mr. Moore arrives at Samaritan House in a pinstriped suit, a relic from his mortgage days. He has been out in search of work, stepping into retail shops, dropping off résumés.
Throughout his life, he had a knack for making money. His father, a Mexican immigrant, worked as a window washer. His mother was on and off welfare. At 14, he was earning $1,000 a month delivering afternoon newspapers.
In 2004, he was earning $75,000 consulting on mortgages. The following year, he and his wife bought their home in an East Bay suburb for $400,000.
Mr. Moore was driving hundreds of miles to closings all over the state. He was often coming home in the middle of the night, much to the displeasure of his wife. The couple split up in 2007. Then everything fell apart. The mortgage business dried up. He lost the house to foreclosure. He moved into the studio apartment.
By March 2008, he was driving a forklift at a home furnishings store from 7 at night until 4 in the morning.
Needing to pay child support, he took a second job, manning a cash register from 4 a.m. to 1 p.m. at a grocery store. He quit that job because of back pain, he says. He lost the forklift job because he had to take care of his children and could no longer work nights.
He searched frantically for work in the mortgage industry, in customer service, in retail.
"It just seems like no one wants my skills," he says.
So he took a job at a Red Robin restaurant, where he has gained expertise in frying bacon bits.
"Family focused," declares a flier on a bulletin board inside the kitchen. "I am treated like a member of the Red Robin family."
His own family fills out the king-size bed that takes up most of his cave-like apartment. His son and daughter sleep lengthwise, side by side, while Mr. Moore occupies the foot.
He lies there, listening to the hum of his tiny refrigerator and imagining moving to a better place, while relieved to at least have these walls.
He is within striking distance of recapturing stability, he tells himself, if only he can hang on to his apartment long enough to find a better job.
"That's my motivation," he says. "I can get my life back."