Through last year, homeless people had a friend in the Missoula Housing Authority, a local non-profit housing agency which finds shelter for families and individuals in need. For 10 years, the agency, which administers more than $3 million annually in federal money for rental and housing assistance programs, "warehoused the poor," in the words of CEO Ed Mayer, exclusively sheltering the community's homeless.
But recent welfare cuts have taken their toll on the agency, pushing administrators to focus on "a more economically diverse and upwardly mobile client base," according to the 1997 annual report. Because of these changes, those without hearth or home this year will find their housing options more limited than they have in a long time.
"In the 1930s, when programs like this were first established, it was for the working poor, not the indigent and homeless," Mayer says. "In the 1960s, welfare became a safety net. Now Congress is backing off from that again, allowing the YWCAs and Poverellos [two Missoula organization's which operate shelters] to serve the homeless."
All local groups which share the mission of providing shelter for homeless people have waiting lists and are struggling. The two largest-the YWCA and the Poverello's Joseph Residence-say they have zero ability to pick up where the Housing Authority left off.
"Our waiting list has gone up somewhat and I anticipate it will go up higher," says Cynthia Raymond, director of the YWCA. "We'll see a continued increase. While more people apply, we don't serve any more people."
The Housing Authority's shift comes at a particularly difficult time for groups such as the Y, the Pov and Share House (which works with chemically-dependent homeless people). Each was turned down by the feds for three year grants that come out to about $35,000 per program per year.
Raymond, whose group spends $102,000 annually to run 12 single-family duplexes, says the loss was devastating at first. "We found out two days before Christmas, and had a week to figure things out. I thought we'd have to close down some units, but we've been working piecemeal to keep the program intact. We haven't had to put anyone out on the street.
"If we don't figure out a way to make up that loss of money by this time next year, I will have to close at least two units."
The housing authority doesn't get any welfare funds directly, but its clients-nearly half of whom are on welfare-pay one-third of their income toward rent, according to Mayer.
"Sixty percent of MHA clients rely on some sort of public assistance as their primary source of income, and 40 percent are on welfare. That represents 10 percent of our income," he says. "With welfare time limits, we're looking at potentially losing 10 percent of our income. We've managed to limit our exposure to that liability by broadening our income types."
Still, there are a couple of upsides to the changes, Mayer says.
As a result, he notes, the housing authority has moved a few steps ahead on the ladder of what's called the "continuum of care." Single, working moms, who spend much of their income on rent, can now get rental assistance. Likewise, those in job training programs, victims of domestic abuse, elderly and disabled people now can turn to the housing authority.
But the homeless will be forced to turn to transitional housing programs run by groups such as the Poverello and YWCA-which Mayer acknowledges has a variety of implications.
Previously, Mayer says, his agency took homeless people out of those programs before the families had completed them. "We'd give them housing assistance right away, before the Y was able to finish working with them," he says. "And then we'd be dealing with a dysfunctional tenant without the skills to keep it together.
"The new admissions policy accomplishes two things. We've got a more diverse tenant base, increased our income and made up for HUD cut backs. Second, we're taking families that are capable and getting them on their feet to where they can afford their own housing."
Leslie McClintock, a grant administrator for the city/county Office of Planning and Grants, says last year's application process for HUD agents was difficult, and that the reasons Missoula groups lost their funding are "complicated."
"Transitional housing has been a bottleneck," McClintock says. "We don't have adequate transitional housing. Funding the Share House and the Joseph Residence would be a significant step forward."
Mayer, however, says the changes forced by welfare reform have been good for his agency. "There are weaknesses within the system, specifically a lack of appropriate child care. But people do want to get up and out of public housing and assistance.
"We've seen a lot of families move up and on."
Crystal Williams and Corinne Wartell, tenants in the YWCA's transitional housing program, practice spackling a wall. "These were always things my dad would do, or a boyfriend or my husband," says Wartell of the independent living skills taught to the single moms. "By the time they leave this program, they can fix their lawn mowers, change their anti-freeze, hang sheet rock, snake the toilet. They can do things you and I can't," says YWCA director Cynthia Raymond, adding that it’s these skills which help the formerly homeless women maintain self-sufficiency.