MOUNT VERNON — There are numerous barriers that limit government assistance for the homeless, said Knox County Jobs and Family Services Director Matthew Kurtz.
Just one of those, he said, was removing a former government “interim assistance” program for those waiting on a determination about qualifying for SSI (Social Security Income) or SSDI (Social Security Disability Income). The interim assistance had provided a way to house those made temporarily homeless for months simply because they needed final OK on a program they qualified for.
“That was something we weren’t happy to see go,” said Kurtz, who has been with JFS for 26 years. “Now there are issues people run into when waiting on SSI.”
He added that societal views over the years, such as labeling the homeless under the blanket category of “deadbeats” — despite multiple causes of homelessness — has led to pressure to remove assistance programs in some instances.
Bigger still, is the limitation on JFS’s spending for assistance of homeless people. Sixty to 80 percent of JFS funding is used to provide federal block grant-funded assistance for those who have qualified for TANF — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Knox County JFS does work through a contract to provide $10,000 per year to the Winter Sanctuary, Mount Vernon’s emergency homeless shelter, Kurtz said. The funds are used to provide help such as motel stays for homeless families, and has been enough to cover what the sanctuary asked for its first few years of existence.
“If there’s a bigger need, we are definitely in communication with them,” he said, noting that Interchurch Social Services provides some longer-term housing options, primarily for homeless families.
The Winter Sanctuary itself faces limitations, which include being open only in the winter, while also requiring that its occupants leave the premises during the daytime hours. Kurtz noted that while only open during the winter, a sanctuary representative can be in communication with those in need of housing, year-round. Behavioral Healthcare Partners can provide housing assistance to homeless persons with mental illness, Kurtz added. In addition, the Salvation Army provides assistance to those at risk of becoming homeless, by providing help with utility payments and free meals. A list of what services are available to the homeless or near-homeless can be accessed by calling 211.
Understanding the issue of homelessness, from a bureaucratic perspective, requires knowledge of recent history.
Back in the 1990s, Kurtz noted, TANF was pre-dated by general assistance, which most working people and politicians referred to as the “welfare” system. There were no limitations, then, on how long adults could remain on welfare, and then-President Bill Clinton decided to work during his second term with Congress to “reform” the system. Critics said the system institutionalized generational poverty in part due to people who were unmotivated to work.
What has transpired since then, Kurtz said, is that more and more people who would have been under the old welfare system — and unable to work, either due to mental illness or physical disability — have instead qualified for either SSI or SSDI, or are attempting to do so from programs becoming increasingly harder to qualify for. Meanwhile, the kind of housing such people can qualify for and afford, such as senior housing under the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), or Knox Metropolitan Housing — “has had a long waiting list locally for years,” Kurtz said. He also offered that if one is a single adult individual who is homeless, the barriers to finding help can be even more daunting than for a family.
“Single folks are not in the federal mission, basically,” he said of TANF and what is needed to qualify for it.
But Kurtz said there are rays of light, and hope, that exist for those who are homeless. The Winter Sanctuary, Interchurch Social Services, the Salvation Army, JFS, Behavioral Healthcare Services and other entities are committed to finding help for the downtrodden. A person can be homeless, long-term or short-term, due to so many circumstances, Kurtz noted — illegal drug dependency, mental illness, the trauma caused from fighting in wars overseas (homeless veterans) or the loss of a job and inability to find work for prolonged periods. Kurtz offered that non-profit organizations, such as as the Winter Sanctuary, are much better at helping the homeless “with boots on the ground” than government agencies. Not being tied down by government restrictions, as JFS is, means non-profits are better equipped to provide timely help. Kurtz said JFS is aware that there are homeless “camps” of people in Knox County, “and we have actively visited them in some situations” Kurtz said. Such situations often involve reports of abuse or neglect occurring.
“Usually, we can solve (housing needs) pretty quickly if it’s a family that’s homeless,” Kurtz said.
He offered there is no such thing as a “homeless child” in Knox County, because if there were a child in such a situation, even temporarily, JFS would move quickly to place the child under foster care. For families that are homeless, separating them from their children is never a desired solution, because it is so traumatizing, he said. Homelessness for such families is often just a temporary poverty issue — one that can be overcome with job and living assistance.
Kurtz said he sees the compassion that exists for the homeless in Knox County from the agencies and churches that provide help.
“There is a hot meal available every night of the week in this community,” he said.