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Shelter for seniors, seriously mentally ill top advocates’ wish list

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After a one-time windfall from the Legislature, affordable housing supporters who’ve advocated for restoring the State Housing Trust Fund to pre-recession levels are looking at how to best stretch the new money and make the case for more.

This year’s budget appropriated $15 million to the fund, reversing a nearly decade-long trend of capping it at $2.5 million annually.

As the Arizona Department of Housing finishes collecting public comments about what to do with the additional funds, it’s hearing a few common themes – older adults increasingly experience homelessness; renters need protection from evictions; families of people with severe mental illness are desperate for secure living situations for their relatives, and $15 million is nowhere near enough.

Sen. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, said, “I’m really excited that we got what we got, and I’m really hopeful that we’ll get more next year as people seem to realize what a desperate problem this is. It’s not just homelessness but low-income housing and workforce housing as well.”

The fund

The State Housing Trust Fund, created in 1988, is funded through the sale of unclaimed property. Prior to the recession, it contained more than $30 million and the Department of Housing was able to use those funds as a match to leverage more than $350 million in federal funds, according to the Arizona Housing Coalition.

But in 2010, as part of statewide budget cuts caused by the Great Recession, the Legislature capped the State Housing Trust Fund at $2.5 million per year. Building affordable housing typically takes multiple different grants, low-interest loans, tax breaks and donations, but having less money available from one source can have a domino effect on others.

“When you create affordable housing, the amount of different funding streams that are necessary to create affordable housing projects, it’s almost mind-numbing,” said Joan Serviss, executive director of the Arizona Housing Coalition. “The housing trust fund has historically served as gap financing for the creation of affordable housing.”

In addition to being used to get more federal funding, the State Housing Trust Fund can be more flexible than federal funding streams, Serviss said. For instance, she said she knew of one family in the eastern part of the state that was able to use housing trust fund money to help pay for an extended pantry connecting their home to an outhouse on the property, making it easier for the older family members to remain living in their family home.

“You can sprinkle housing trust fund dollars on a house and make it more accessible for seniors to age in place, create wheelchair ramps, that kind of thing,” she said.

Also unlike federal grants that are restricted to helping families earning a certain percentage of their area’s median income, the housing trust fund can be used in other areas. The Department of Housing focuses on extremely low-income households and cost-burdened households where residents pay more than 30 percent of their income toward rent, Serviss said.

Earlier this year, the department used money from the Housing Trust Fund to launch a pilot program to help low-income renters in some parts of the state by providing emergency grants and case management to families who receive eviction notices for unpaid rent. By intervening before families are evicted, the department hopes to prevent them from falling into a spiral of unstable housing.

“Once you get evicted, it’s that much harder,” Serviss said. “It becomes a black mark.”

Senior homelessness

A theme reflected in public comments at a packed public meeting the Department of Housing held June 21 was the need for support for older adults who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

“We’ve been hearing a lot about the need for shelters for the older population that have unique medical needs that the typical shelter can’t provide,” Serviss said.

Representatives from Arizona AARP became aware of the meeting after touring Central Arizona Shelter Services and learning that 31 percent of the people staying there are seniors, Arizona AARP Director Dana Kennedy said.

Kennedy said she learned that some seniors are discharged from the hospital directly to the shelter, but it’s not designed for older adults.

“We advocated to look into the potential of providing a shelter specifically for seniors,” she said. “Once there, they can get connected to services and case management and back into housing.”

Rep. Robert Meza, D-Phoenix, said he was pleased with the additional money obtained for the State Housing Trust Fund this legislative session, but he already has his eyes on next year.

He noted more and more elderly residents of Maricopa County in particular are being priced out of their homes, a trend he called “the silver tsunami.” He described grandmas and grandpas forced to move in with their children and grandchildren, or wind up on the street.

They’re on fixed incomes and unable to keep up with a housing market that is increasingly in demand, Meza said.

And, Kennedy said, seniors who still can afford to live in their homes may do so at the cost of other necessities. She said she can’t stop thinking about the death of Stephanie Pullman, a 72-year-old Sun City West woman who died from heat last September after Arizona Public Service turned off her electricity for not paying her bill in full.

As baby boomers get older, Kennedy said they’ll need more help. More older adults will face chronic health conditions and dwindling savings, making it harder for them to continue to afford housing or other basic needs.

“Your Social Security is only going to go so far and your savings are only going to last for so long,” she said.

Homes for the seriously mentally ill

This year’s $15 million appropriation to the State Housing Trust Fund contains a stipulation that $3.5 million be set aside for beds for housing people who are seriously mentally ill and resist treatment. It stems from a separate bill supported by the Association for the Chronically Mentally Ill.

Laurie Goldstein, the association’s vice president, is seeking state funding for a program like the one that ultimately helped her son. He was diagnosed schizoaffective, and spent years cycling between homelessness, apartments his parents rented for him and short stays in hospitals.

Finally, his parents were able to have him held in a state mental hospital until he reached a level of stability. Now, he stays at a community home, where he’s still supervised.

“The system right now, there’s a gap in the care and folks like that are being thrown out of programs,” Goldstein said. “What they don’t need is short seven-day stays in psychiatric hospitals.”

The model she wants to see is similar to the community living center where her son now lives. Residents would be ordered there by the courts, and they could end up staying for months or more than a year, with an ultimate goal of learning how to live independently.

“It’s not a forever home,” Goldstein said. “It’s not like the old asylum where you get in and don’t get out.”

Alston said she supports additional housing for the seriously mentally ill population, but she’s concerned about how the money was set aside this year. Lawmakers shouldn’t be able to earmark specific projects, she said.

“We’re not the experts, and by doing it once, that opens it up to the other 89 (legislators) to find their little special housing project to earmark, and that’s wrong,” Alston said. “We should leave it to the experts.”

And she noted that the state already has a separate housing trust fund for the seriously mentally ill, under the direction of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.

“They know that population much better than the housing people do, so I think it would have made a lot more sense to put that money directly into AHCCCS, who’s doing the work already and know what they’re doing,” Alston said. “I basically trust most of our people in state government to do a good job and to be the experts in whatever that field happens to be.”

Reporter Katie Campbell contributed to this article.

One comment

  1. For the past 3 years, the Arizona Legislature considered and then failed to pass legislation introduced to address the problem of seniors being unable to afford their property taxes. Once seniors lose their homes and are in a rental, all too often they are quickly priced out of the rental market and become homeless.

    There is now a citizens initiative constitutional amendment for the 2020 ballot, the American Dream Act AZ, that eliminates all property taxes on the primary legal residence of US Citizens over the age of 65.

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