Budget Could Hit Local Homeless Program Hard

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Editor's note: this article first appeared in the latest issue of the Tremont Tribune, which is on the streets and online now.

Park Avenue Thorpe, a supportive housing building home to 20 formerly homeless families, could be shuttered this year by funding cuts. (Photos by Jeanmarie Evelly)

Digna, a 42-year-old formerly homeless woman and mother of two, has called Park Avenue Thorpe home for the last 11 years. She found refuge in the six-story yellow brick building in Bathgate, where an onsite caseworker helps her balance her bank account, pay her bills and talk to the teachers at her two sons’ schools, as Digna’s English is somewhat shaky.

The building, on East 184th Street, is run by Thorpe Family Residence, a nonprofit that provides supportive housing and services to chronically homeless families in an effort to keep them out of the city’s sprawling shelter system.

But severe funding cuts, proposed to balance the state’s ballooning budget, have put Thorpe and dozens of other programs like it at risk of closure.

“These cuts may be the beginning of the end for us,” said Executive Director Sister Mary Jane Deodati, who oversees the 20 families that call the building home.

Many of Thorpe’s residents are single mothers who have battled addiction, have physical or emotional disabilities or who have been victims of domestic violence. A caseworker helps each tenant with personal finances, with finding jobs and other day-to-day tasks.

“Many of our people are fragile and need constant support,” Deodati said. “If this program is cut, they’re going to be homeless again.”

Park Avenue Thorpe relies largely on funding from the state’s Supportive Housing for Families and Young Adults, or SHFYA, a program that saw its budget cut in half last year by former Gov. David Paterson. The remaining half of funds, $2.5 million, was doled out to groups through a competitive rebidding process, which Thorpe lost out on.

This year is looking even more desperate, as new governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed cutting all SHFYA funding in his 2011-2012 budget.

“We are very compassionate with the governor on the notion that there have to be cuts,” said Cynthia Stuart, of the advocacy group Supportive Housing Network of New York.

“But people underestimate how devastatingly expensive chronic homelessness is.”

Those expenses include healthcare costs—the homeless tend to use the emergency room as their primary source of care, racking up expensive unpaid hospital bills—and the costs of housing generations of families in the city’s shelters. Programs like Thorpe help the formerly homeless live somewhat independent lives, where they pay rent, taxes and hold down jobs, Stuart said.

“If you invest in these kinds of programs upstream, people’s lives don’t unravel, and you don’t end up with costlier expenses,” she explained.

Supportive Housing Network of New York estimates that 84 supportive housing programs in the state, which serve 4,656 family members, would be in risk of closing if SHFYA funding is not restored.

Deodati says she loses sleep worrying about the program’s dire finances, and what closing would mean for her tenants.

“It would be devastating to us,” she said. “We really believe in this mission.”

That mission, she says, is to help tenants like Shanee, who moved into Park Avenue Thorpe with her two young daughters six months ago from a homeless shelter. With the program’s help, she secured a job as a security guard, working the night shift and making enough money to pay her rent, her bills, and the babysitter.

“People here, they help me out,” she said. “It’s good to live here.”