Homeless Assistance Program Scrambling For Funding

A program that distributes millions of dollars a year to keep homeless and emergency shelters open across the state is nowhere to be seen in Governor Bill Walker’s budget—leaving dozens of organizations scrambling for the money they’ll need to keep their doors open.

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The basic homeless assistance program—or BHAP—provides anywhere from $5.5-$6 million a year to emergency shelter and transitional housing programs all across Alaska. Last year 40 organizations were funded through the program in 20 communities across the state. The money pays for anything from staffing costs to social work. Every year the grants help more than 13,000 of Alaska’s most vulnerable—an increasing number of whom are children. About one in five of Alaska’s homeless is under the age of 18 – and every nearly one in three of Alaska’s homeless include a parent and a child.

Sue Steinacher is with the Nome Emergency Shelter Team, or NEST—the one and only shelter in the Bering Strait/Norton Sound region. She says the BHAP grant covers two thirds of the shelter’s expenses—essentially making the shelter possible.

“For NEST, it has been HUGE. It is the grant that really got us up and running,” Steinacher said. “It is far and away the largest grant that we receive, and it funds the lion share of the staffing at the shelter, which is essential.”

But the yearly BHAP grants could soon disappear—one of the casualties of the state’s $3.5 billion budget crisis. The grant isn’t in Gov. Walker’s budget. Marc Romick with the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation—which administers the funds—says there’s simply no backup if the BHAP program ends.

“There is no money in the Homeless Assistance Program, and if there is no money at the end of the process, the legislative session, then there wont be any money for us to distribute to the grantees,” Romick said.

In cities like Anchorage losing BHAP grants would impact shelters like Brother Francis as well as Clare House, which shelters women and children. Catholic Social Services director Lisa Aquino says at those shelters, the BHAP money goes directly to case management.

“Those case managers work with our clients who are living at the homeless shelters and connect them with services they need, housing opportunities, employment opportunities, with treatment and healthcare opportunities, those case management opportunities are really the ladder out of homelessness,” Aquino said.

But at smaller shelters—like the NEST shelter in Nome—the BHAP grants can be the difference between having an emergency shelter … or not.

“If we have no other funds to supplement the loss of this rant, it would pretty much, it would come very close to shutting down the shelter. It is that significant a grant to our operations.”

For now, Steinacher says NEST can redirect local donations to keep the shelter running. But that comes at the price of ending the shelter’s other programs, like sober housing and other homeless prevention efforts.

Aquino with Catholic Social Service says the way forward is through engaging with lawmakers in Juneau and making the case for funding the state’s shelters and homeless programs. The group of organizations representing BHAP grantees plan to meet with budget officials in Juneau soon—and Romick with the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation says they’ll review their agency’s needs with the house and senate finance committees on Friday.

Until then, shelters large and small—in 20 communities across Alaska—are waiting to see if they’ll have the funds need to keep their doors open for another year.

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Matthew Smith is a reporter at KNOM in Nome.

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