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Allegheny County programs for homeless in jeopardy as HUD cuts funding

Natasha Lindstrom
| Monday, June 30, 2014, 11:03 p.m.
Shelly Perfetto recently began working at Footer's Dry Cleaners in Squirrel Hill, Friday, June 27, 2014, her first job in 13 years. She had been homeless a couple years ago.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Shelly Perfetto recently began working at Footer's Dry Cleaners in Squirrel Hill, Friday, June 27, 2014, her first job in 13 years. She had been homeless a couple years ago.

Shelly Perfetto didn't have a stable place to live for nearly a decade.

After losing her job as a hospital administrative assistant in 2000, the Turtle Creek native spent months sleeping in a van, then years in an apartment with no utilities.

Perfetto served brief stints in jail for stealing from stores and faking checks to feed her addictions to cocaine and opiates.

She finally got clean and found a permanent home through two Uptown-based programs for the homeless — a substance abuse treatment center at Family Links and a transitional housing program at Bethlehem Haven.

“I learned how to regroup myself and do the things that you need to get your life back together, stupid things like getting an ID, taking care of my health, going to the dentist,” Perfetto, 49, said. “When you're out there on the street, you don't think of a darn thing but, ‘I'm out of food.'”

Programs such as these are in jeopardy as the Department of Housing and Urban Development slashes funding for homeless supportive services and new transitional housing programs.

Total funding for HUD's Continuum of Care Program, which provides homeless assistance grants to nonprofits and local governments, increased by 4.5 percent since 2010, up to $1.7 billion in 2013. During that period, money for transitional housing projects dropped by 13.7 percent to $371 million, and money for supportive services fell by 37.8 percent to $80 million, HUD data show.

In the Pittsburgh region, HUD has said it will discontinue nearly $700,000 in grants to five programs.

The reduction arrives as the government shifts toward models that get a homeless person into a permanent place of living more quickly, as opposed to languishing in a temporary facility for up to two years. Programs dubbed “rapid rehousing” and “housing first” are based on research deeming them to be more cost-effective.

Transitional housing should be “reserved for those populations that most need that type of intervention,” a HUD spokesperson said by email. The agency asks homeless-services providers to be “strategic” and to look to other funding sources.

Yet advocates for the homeless worry about those with severe challenges — mental health breakdowns, drug addictions, criminal histories — who aren't prepared to live independently.

“That means you leave a big gap of people without service, and they'll become a burden on the rest of the social service programs in Allegheny County,” said Denetta Benjamin, Bethlehem Haven's clinical director.

Bethlehem Haven, which primarily serves single women, lost two grants totaling more than $240,000. A foundation stepped up with about $66,000.

Bethlehem Haven might have to close its mental health clinic, used by 170 uninsured women and men since September.

Mercy Behavioral Health lost an almost $70,000 grant it used to operate a medical van that serves 550 to 600 homeless people a year, but that won't end the program, said Lynetta Ward, program manager of Mercy's Operation Safety Net.

Allegheny County may find money to offset some of the federal cuts, though officials won't know how much flexibility they'll have to move money until the Legislature passes the 2014-15 state budget, county Human Services spokeswoman Patricia Valentine said.

In the meantime, “we try to help people move through the system more quickly,” said Chuck Keenan, administrator for the county's Bureau of Homeless Services.

Perfetto is thrilled to be living in an apartment in Wilmerding. A few weeks ago, she started working at a dry cleaners in Squirrel Hill — her first job in 13 years.

“It took me almost two years to get everything together,” Perfetto said. “You really have to want to do it to succeed.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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