Homeless Funding Struggle
Agency overseeing Austin's most comprehensive web of homeless services scrambles for funding
Scrambling after slashed federal grants threatened a loss of 25 volunteers this week, the agency overseeing Austin's most comprehensive web of homeless services secured funding for the next two fiscal years albeit at a reduced level. Formed in 1997, Front Steps is instrumental in the city's campaign to end chronic homelessness. Most visibly, the group manages the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless Downtown and co-manages the Garden Terrace Residences, offering housing to the homeless. But no less importantly, Front Steps also oversees Keep Austin Housed, a multiagency program invested in getting people off the street and keeping them under a roof. Front Steps program director Carol Swicker says Keep Austin Housed bridges the interagency gaps its clients face.
To that end, the 25 volunteers, funded by a federal AmeriCorps grant, provide assistance across 13 different homeless-service agencies. The positions vary from work with outreach and assistance providers, like Caritas and VinCare Services, to placement with transitional-housing centers, like SafePlace and LifeWorks. Casa Marianella, opened in 1986 to help Latin American immigrants fleeing political turmoil, was hit especially hard by the funding cut; three of four positions at the nonprofit's Posada Esperanza women and children's shelter were staffed by AmeriCorps volunteers. "What we try to use the AmeriCorps members for is clients that need extra support," Swicker says, "applying for jobs, writing résumés, interviewing skills things full-time case managers don't have the extra time for. They put time in with real vulnerable clients. The agencies aren't able to follow clients when they leave [shelters], when they find housing. That's a big component, helping to maintain clients' housing."
The volunteers are also on the frontline at the ARCH emergency shelter Downtown. The three AmeriCorps volunteers there perform a variety of tasks. For example, Melanie Prestridge helps secure prescriptions, wheelchairs, Medicare, Medicaid, and insurance coverage for clients in the Health Care for the Homeless Clinic inside ARCH; Mike Wilder works with A New Entry, which assists homeless clients coming out of incarceration; and Chris O'Neil manages cases at the clinic, hands out clothes, and organizes a "street soccer" team. John Gilvar, project director for the clinic, says loss of AmeriCorps funding would cut case management by half from two positions to one.
"There's much more than the medical needs," Gilvar says; with several clients having mental-health or substance-abuse disorders, comprehensive care is required. "Just having a doctor hand them a prescription isn't enough. You need additional support helping with employment, addiction." The volunteers provide that additional help, he says. "AmeriCorps bolsters the program. Without them, it's one less case manager."
Front Steps' last AmeriCorps grant covered the final year of a three-year budget cycle, but the decision to defund the program made at the federal level caught them off guard. Front Steps Executive Director Helen Varty said her organization was lauded in a recent state survey of grant programs. "The federal government can fund below the top-scoring organizations," Varty said in a press release. "We were surprised, but we don't have any information yet" as to why the decision was made. Under the grant, AmeriCorps volunteers are paid a small stipend for their work, meaning each volunteer contributed tens of thousands of dollars' worth of market-value work to the agencies. "It's a lot to replace," Swicker says. "It's going to impact how many people the agencies can serve and the intensity they can serve with," not to mention prevent new nonprofits from coming onboard. Three additional groups Foundation Communities, Family Eldercare, and Mobile Loaves and Fishes were slated to join Keep Austin Housed this year.
With the current grant only keeping the AmeriCorps employees on through August, Front Steps looked to the state to pick up the slack a dicey proposition even in the best of times. But Swicker says the OneStar Foundation, a nonprofit created under the aegis of the Governor's Office, "has been real supportive." This week, Front Steps learned OneStar would provide them with funding for two more years of AmeriCorps assistance. The funding doesn't match previous levels instead of 25 full-time volunteers, it covers 10 full-time and 10 part-time employees but Swicker is grateful. "We'll have to make some cuts, but at least we'll still be afloat."
Front Steps is also seeking foundation and corporation support. To learn more about this program, visit www.keepaustinhoused.org.