‘How come we can afford a new hotel, but we don’t have money to help homeless people?’

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Evansville Courier and Press on 06/25/2016 by Jessie Higgins

Chris Metz, assistant director at Echo House, helps 67-year-old Cynthia Phelps to the Aurora Homeless Outreach van after they found a bed for the woman at a local shelter Friday. Phelps lost her apartment two years ago and has been bouncing around on and off the streets ever since.

Chris Metz, assistant director at Echo House, helps 67-year-old Cynthia Phelps to the Aurora Homeless Outreach van after they found a bed for the woman at a local shelter Friday. Phelps lost her apartment two years ago and has been bouncing around on and off the streets ever since.

When Aurora’s Homeless Outreach van arrived at the United Caring Shelter on Friday morning, Robert Payne and his two little girls hurried forward.

His daughter went immediately toward the group’s cooler for a water bottle to pour over her head, while Payne waited for his turn to speak with the caseworker. He hoped that the outreach team would give him the $20 he needed to apply for an affordable housing apartment.

“We’re homeless,” Payne said. “We had an apartment, but we lost it because I lost my job.”

But the team had no money to give him.

In fact, the group is so low on funds, it is in danger of closing down.

Last month, the Aurora Homeless Outreach Team’s funding dropped by nearly 50 percent.

The majority of the group’s funding came from federal grants, said Brian Kerney, Aurora’s executive director.

“Basically, our greatest fear, the worst thing that could happen, did happen,” Kerney said. “We lost our grant.”

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has shifted its approach to fighting homelessness. Instead of funding programs like the outreach team that provide case management or transitional housing, federal taxpayer money is now going toward permanent affordable housing projects.

The change in philosophy has had a widespread impact in Evansville. Besides Aurora’s outreach team, two local transitional housing programs — the YWCA Transitional Housing and Recovery Program and the Goodwill Family Shelter — also lost their HUD grants.

“HUD decided we need more permanent affordable housing, and we do,” said Susan Steinkamp, the Homeless Outreach Team leader. “So they pulled all the money from everything else.”

It’s left the three agencies — and the hundreds of people they serve — scrambling.

“We came here for help,” Payne said Friday morning, as he and his children lingered in the hot parking lot near the United Caring Shelter. “Now, Aurora don’t have no funds. We were going to go to Goodwill, but they’re losing money, too. And now the Y’s losing money, too.”

He looked across the parking lot toward Evansville’s downtown.

“How come we can afford a new hotel, but we don’t have money to help homeless people?”

Evansville’s Commission on Homelessness launched a campaign last week to raise money from the community to fund the three programs until the end of the year. The commission is still collecting donations.

But even if that campaign succeeds, the organizations will be on their own to raise money next year — and the years after that. And whether each is able to maintain their operations will have a real impact on a large, incredibly diverse, group of people.

And each agency has many examples of real people they’ve helped turn their lives around.

People like Josah Hollander.

In the fall 2015, Hollander and her infant son were homeless and running out of options.

“I was on drugs and alcohol pretty bad when I was pregnant with my son,” Hollander said. “I was so afraid he was going to come out this miserable child. But he came out and hen is the most smiley little boy.”

Something clicked after Hollander’s son was born. She decided she wanted better for him, and for herself. She spent some time in rehab. Then, with no plan — and no support — she left the drug and alcohol filled home she lived in, and went to a shelter.

She got a job, hoping to save money for her own place. It wasn’t as easy as she thought.

“I had just got a job at Goodwill,” Hollander said. “Everyday I was trying to get day care because I couldn’t miss work or I’d lose my job. It was defeating me.”

It soon became clear that Hollander couldn’t save enough money to rent her own apartment before she had to leave the shelter. So she applied for a room at the Goodwill Family Shelter.

“That was my only option,” Hollander said. “I was going to give up if I didn’t get in. I remember I just prayed that day, that wherever me and my son went it was a more stable place.”

The next day, she got the call from Goodwill: She and her son were accepted.

Over the next nine months, Hollander worked hard. Her case managers at Goodwill met with her every week to develop goals and a plan for her to become independent.

Now she has a full-time job, money in the bank — and she’s about to move into her own apartment.

“I’m overwhelmed with gratitude lately for where my life is at today,” Hollander said Thursday afternoon. “Without this place, I would probably be back on the streets using. I couldn’t be where I am today, this woman, without this program, without all their support.”

Hollander gestured to her two case managers, Bryan Baker and Loretta Barnett. The two smiled.

“I’m so proud of you,” Baker said.

Hollander is an example of case management and transitional housing working, Baker said. And it’s stories like hers the keeps the group fighting to stay open. Because for every success story, there are countless more in need of help.

Last week, the outreach team found a girl curled up in the doorway of an old church, pretending to be asleep. The neighbors said she’d been there for days.

“She wouldn’t talk to us,” said Natasha Goodge, an outreach team case worker. “So, of course, we’ve gone back every day.”

Armed with snack bags and other supplies, the team tried slowly to earn the girl’s trust. In a few days, she stopped telling them to leave. And, on Thursday, she finally told them her name — Tracy.

“She’s really guarded,” Goodge said. “I don’t know if it’s alcohol or substance abuse, or she has a budding mental illness that’s scaring her. She has a shopping cart with her, but all that’s in it is a big box fan. That’s such a random thing to be carrying around.”

Given enough time, Goodge hopes to build a relationship with Tracy — who looks about 25 — and help her.

Assuming they still have time.

The HUD funding cuts hit each agency differently. HUD covered about a third of the Goodwill Family Shelter’s annual costs. It covered about 40 percent of the YWCA transitional housing’s cost, and 40 percent of the outreach team’s costs.

Each of those agencies will now be turning to the community for support.

“Really, the government has said communities need to stop relying on us,” Kerney said. “We cannot do it alone.”