If you survived my recent blog about the Continuum of Care you have learned a cornerstone of the affordable housing system. The diagram showed that the CoC is actually a simple structure, at least in theory. Where it gets nutty is when all of the involved agencies try to interpret the statutes, HUD rules and regulations and program plans consistently.
Since time immemorial the way government agencies distribute grants is through a Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) process. Each year since HUD began rolling out resources to help the homeless created a new opportunity to confuse the process.
Federal programs are born when Congress passes a law to create the new program. They are real when Congress actually includes funding in the annual budget. This document (and I use that term loosely because it is likely to be more like a phone book) is turned over to the responsible federal agency. In our case that is HUD. HUD must then pick apart the statute to understand its intent and create administrative rules and regulations. The next major step is to issue the NOFA.
You would expect the law and the rules and the NOFA would match, right? Hah!
Trying to create a manageable and effective system has fallen on the shoulders of the CoC. Over the last 10 years HUD has passed on authority for the CoC to set local priorities, rank funding requests and monitor agencies for fiscal and program responsibility.
That was not a smooth process. Even HUD manuals and trainings, intended to provide guidance, were contradictory. Finally in 2009 Congress retooled McKinney-Vento, adding the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH Act). This update does not replace McKinney-Vento or its mission to house the homeless. It consolidates and simplifies housing programs.
HEARTH is still evolving so there is still no definitive guide to how the Continuum of Care programs will work. We can start with HEARTH’s new definition of homelessness. Again, it seems that identifying a person as “homeless” should be straight forward. Instead HUD rules define four different categories of homelessness. The category you are in affects which programs are open to you.
Category One: Literally Homeless
Literally homeless is the most restrictive category for eligibility. These families are on the street or in a shelter. Your clients who meet this definition will be eligible for nearly all CoC programs.
There are five situations in which a person or family is literally homeless. They are:
- Living inshelter designed to provide temporary living arrangements
- Living on the streets, in cars, abandoned buildings or other places not fit for human habitation
- Leaving transitional housing and they were living in a shelter or on the streets at the time they entered transitional housing
- Exiting an institution where they resided for ≤ 90 days AND were on the street or in a shelter immediately prior to entering the institution
- Staying in a hotel or motel paid for by charitable organizations or by government programs and they were in shelters or on the street immediately prior to entering the hotel/motel.
Your clients must obtain Certificate of Homelessness that verifies they have been literally homeless. As its name implies the housing providers must have it to document they are serving eligible people. There is an official form you must use. For a copy of it contact the CoC. It may be on your local CoC web site. It should be available from any housing provider who serves the homeless.
HUD will accept verification from three sources. One completed by the local HMIS manager or by a homeless shelter is the most valued. (watch this blog for information on HMIS – what it is and how to use it). A service provider can complete the verification. This is not bullet proof but few licensed case managers will risk their license by lying about this. Finally, the homeless person can swear to his/her homelessness. Don’t be surprised if the intake person asks questions to bolster the claim to homelessness. The more informaiton you client can give the more credibility they have.
Let’s say your housing provider says they will have a unit in four months. Is the current verification still valid for that? No. They are good for 60 days. In the meantime if they sleep on a friend’s sofa they have not lost their Category One status. One past 60 days your client will need a new verification.
The Continuum of Care may not be easy to understand in the near future. Nonetheless it’s probably the best source of information about homeless programs. Use its web site or get to know the administrator for guidance.
Let’s close with the single best piece of advice I can give for you to speed up access to affordable housing – before you submit a single application to anyone review their full application. Complete it thoroughly and accurately with all requested attachments before you submit it. The waiting list for federal housing is very long indeed for people who can’t master this basic step.