Lawmakers approved a 25 percent increase in funds for a critical program that supports people with a temporary disability for the first time since the program was created in 2011, money that will help an estimated 1,000 people to avoid homelessness.
However, the bump is not enough to cover all of those newly eligible for the program after lawmakers expanded it in 2018.
The Housing and Essential Needs (HEN) program in King County helps participants with rent and utility costs, hygiene supplies and a transportation benefit while the client is temporarily disabled. That could mean support while a person recovers from heart surgery, mental illness or other malady.
But the King County program, operated by Catholic Community Services, has been at capacity for nearly a year, and it’s not unique. According to the state, 60 percent of counties reported increases in caseloads and unmet need.
The local HEN program costs about $5 million, said Mark Ellerbrook, director of the Housing & Community Development division. To cover the newly eligible would cost as much as $3 to $4 million more.
The waitlist has proven durable in part because lawmakers widened HEN eligibility without increasing the amount of funding dedicated to the program. The HEN budget has stood firm at roughly $58 million each year since it was created in 2011.
Advocates asked lawmakers for an additional $69 million this budget cycle, a figure that would have covered the need across the state. If it had been approved, the increase would have more than doubled the size of the HEN program, said David Hlebain, Basic Needs Campaign manager for the Statewide Poverty Action Network, an advocacy group.
As lawmakers rolled into the weekend, the Senate had proposed an additional $15 million while the House bill included $12.7 million more for the program. They settled at a $14.5 million increase, according to the Department of Commerce.
Advocates estimate that would be enough to help approximately 1,000 more people, a substantial increase but not enough to cover the need.
Waitlists ballooned in 2018 after lawmakers approved changes to the program that opened eligibility to people on the Aged, Blind and Disabled (ABD) program. The move was a technical fix to help protect vulnerable people who were moved from HEN to ABD without much warning when their doctor decided that their disability was no longer temporary.
That had the effect of throwing people into homelessness when their housing subsidy and other HEN benefits were replaced with a $197 monthly check as they go through the process of applying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). That program is notoriously difficult to access, with the average processing time hitting 595 days in 2018, according to the Social Security Administration.
That’s up 40 percent since 2010.
“This doesn’t make sense,” said Janelle Rothfolk, division director at Catholic Community Services. “We just spent all of this time getting this person stable and now they are more disabled and getting less assistance.”
The funding boost for HEN was a victory for advocates who are usually in the position of defending the existing allocation.
The 2018 elections that restored Democratic control in Olympia ushered in a host of diverse lawmakers who supported the program, Hlebain said.
“There’s a really huge number of new lawmakers this year,” Hlebain said. “We have more women lawmakers, more lawmakers of color, we have more allies naturally into our work than we’ve had before.”
The HEN program deals with some of the most vulnerable people that interact with the social services system. Approximately 81 percent of HEN clients have some kind of mental health issue, and a subset of those may have one or more cooccurring mental health challenges.
Even so, the HEN program has proven to be a successful way to keep people stably housed. HEN clients can get access to mental health treatment and a jobs program, and Catholic Community Services has worked with more than 4,000 private landlords to integrate their HEN clients into the community.
“You probably have HEN clients as your neighbors,” Rothfolk said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
Read the full May 1 - 7 issue.
We have removed the comment section from our website. Here's why.
© 2019 Real Change. All rights reserved.| Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change and donate now to support independent, award-winning journalism.