Homeless nonprofit nearing deadline

HUD awards funds but wants more info

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comFebruary 11, 2013 

— A nonprofit homeless advocacy group in Merced is struggling to get off the ground under tighter Department of Housing and Rehabilitation funding guidelines.

However, those working with the Sierra Saving Grace Homeless Project say HUD's stricter attitude has improved their operation.

"I appreciate it," said Kathy Smith, the nonprofit's executive director. "It got us to get everything documented about our program. Now we really have all the tools that we need."

The program, which helps chronically homeless, medically needy people find housing, operated for a decade out of the Sierra Presbyterian Church.

Then in 2010, the church was dissolved, and members of the group started a nonprofit to keep the program going. The group has since been awarded two HUD grants through Merced's Continuum of Care program totaling more than $150,000.

But that doesn't mean they'll be able to use that federal money. First, the group has to have a HUD-approved plan or "technical submission" to use the funds.

That process has recently become more demanding, said Lori Flanders, spokeswoman for the Merced County Association of Governments. The local agency helps shepherd groups such as the Sierra Saving Grace Homeless Project through the funding process.

"HUD is not the same today as it was five years ago," she said. "It is no longer business as usual. Programs are going to need to perform and document performance to ensure an ongoing funding source."

According to a government memo recently received by the Merced Continuum of Care, federal grant funding programs are being "streamlined to make the most of taxpayer dollars and ensure financial integrity while delivering the right program outcomes."

At the same time, there are more groups fighting for limited federal funding, said regional HUD spokeswoman Gene Gibson.

"The application process for all Continuum of Care grants has become more competitive, and the demand for additional information has increased to include point-in-time count data, housing inventory, demographics," she said.

That's put the fledgling nonprofit in something of a bind.

Plan returned for corrections

Group leaders recently submitted a plan to HUD that was promptly returned with more than a dozen questions that needed to be addressed before final approval, Smith said.

"We never had to do the documentation of the homeless status before," she said. "Chronically homeless means they have to document with backup from a professional -- a doctor, a shelter, a social worker -- going back a whole year from the date you're going to bring them into your program."

The group said it has made most of the needed corrections to its plan, but it's up against a fast-approaching March 13 deadline for approval.

"It's almost to the point where it needs to be in HUD's hands tomorrow," Smith said. "So that they can review it and approve it, and we can execute a contract."

If they can meet the deadline, Merced could have a program to provide permanent housing and supportive services as early as this spring for 13 chronically homeless individuals at a time.

If not, the previously approved funds would be lost, and the program would face a significant setback.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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