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County Struggles to Meet Supportive Housing Objectives

County officials say they will not be able to meet goals of adding up to 425 new supportive units for those with mental and physical disabilities.

Nine months ago, Beverly Thomas was unemployed and living in an Arlington group home. She was hoping to move out, but had neither the financial means nor the know how to secure her own place.

Today, thanks to the county, she lives in a modest one-bedroom apartment in the Buckingham neighborhood and has landed a steady job as a bagger at a local grocery store. Thomas, 58, revels in her new found independence and is looking forward to taking on more hours at work.

“I love the freedom,” said Thomas, sitting at her kitchen table last week, surrounded by pictures of her son and mother. “I can come and go when I want. I can cook anything I want, whenever I want.”

Thomas is one of 39 Arlington residents or families who have been placed in apartments over the past two years through the county’s supportive housing program. This initiative, launched in May 2005, provides affordable housing to those with mental and physical disabilities, while also supplying them with intensive services to ensure they can remain in their apartments.

“Some of them have never lived on their own before and some have been homeless for a long, long time,” said Sara Thompson, Arlington’s supportive housing services manager. “This program provides stability and a sense of normalcy.”

The county pays the vast majority of Thomas’s rent and helped her find furniture. A case worker stops by at least once a week to make sure she is paying her bills and keeping the apartment in good condition. Additionally, the case worker provides emotional support and counseling, and drives Thomas to a nearby food bank, as well as assisting her with other errands.

Without the supportive housing program and the weekly visits from the case manager, Thomas does not believe she would be employed right now or be living on her own.

“I wouldn’t have none of this if it wasn’t for the county,” Thomas said. “I would have to start from scratch and go back to the group home or live with my mother.”

AS PART OF THE 2005 INITIATIVE, the county established the ambitious goal of developing between 375 and 425 supportive housing units over the subsequent five years. But the recent loss of an estimated $5.2 million in federal funds that were used to secure housing units for the program jeopardizes that plan.

County officials acknowledge that there is no way they can create so many new units for homeless individuals and those with disabilities in such a short time, and will likely have to scale back the number of residents who can enter the supportive housing program.

“With the loss of funding it will be a great challenge to increase the number of units, but we will continue to push ahead,” said Cynthia Stevens, Arlington’s supportive housing coordinator.

This summer the federal government and the state of Virginia agreed to suspend $15 million worth of reimbursements for preventive human services programs in Arlington. An audit found that the state of Virginia had given Arlington permission to use federal funds for programs that went beyond the more rigid federal guidelines.

The county does not own the apartments in the supportive housing program, but instead used the federal funding to help local developers or nonprofits set aside the units for potential clients. On average, the county spent $20,000 of federal money to ensure each unit was reserved for those with mental and physical disabilities and would be rented out at an affordable price, Stevens said.

With the loss of this funding, the county no longer has the financial leverage to ensure more units can be added to the program.

“As projects come forward, we don’t have the opportunity to be able to participate because we don’t have funds to contribute,” Stevens said.

In addition to the 39 individuals and families living in supportive housing units, the county has another 76 apartments under contract. But those won’t become available until the current leases expire or are not renewed, Thompson said.

Last month, Gov. Tim Kaine included in his budget amendments a request for $1.7 million in funding to construct a 52-unit facility at Oak Springs for seniors with mental disabilities. If the proposal is approved by the General Assembly it will allow Arlington to utilize a $4.8 million federal grant to build the center.

COUNTY OFFICIALS ARE dismayed by the loss of federal funds because of the many benefits of the supportive housing program. First and foremost it provides the homeless, the mentally ill and those with mental retardation with a roof over their heads.

“It’s really impossible to stabilize families and help individuals reach their independence, or break the cycle of poverty, without having secure housing,” said County Board member Barbara Favola.

Having a permanent place to live boosts the self-confidence of the individuals and makes it easier for them to retain employment, officials said.

“I think this really empowers them to take steps to lead their own lives,” Stevens said.

The case managers focus on in-home support and developing life skills, such as ensuring the clients pay their bills, clean the apartment and have food to eat.

Additionally, they provide job training, help residents manage their money and make sure they are seeing psychiatrists and taking their medication. But none of these things can occur unless the residents are living on their own.

“With housing they are given hope,” said Tiffany Kelsey, a case manager. “They are making improvements in their lives largely because they have a home.”

County officials are now scrambling to find other resources to help them continue to add to the stock of supportive housing units and make up for the loss of $5.2 million in federal funding. The county is currently seeking out nonprofit partners that will help them apply for different types of federal and state assistance, Stevens said.

Current clients do not have to worry about losing their rent subsidies, because those come from county coffers and other resources.

The county is hoping the Virginia General Assembly can to come to the rescue and earmark money for the program. Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple has introduced a $6 million budget amendment to help Arlington add new units; Del. Bob Brink is pushing a similar amendment in the House of Delegates.

“That’s a lot of money, but it’s only a dent in the waiting list of people who need it a great deal,” said Janie Burton, Whipple’s legislative aide.

The County Board will also consider bolstering the program with local funding when it creates its 2008 fiscal budget this spring. But the cooling real estate market means the county will have a smaller pool of discretionary funding to dole out.

“The board is going to make every effort to come up with a financing plan to allow us over time to achieve these goals,” Favola said. “It may take longer, but I don’t think the board is going to walk away from these goals.”