A program that distributes millions of dollars a year to keep homeless and emergency shelters open across the state is nowhere to be seen in Governor Bill Walker’s budget, leaving dozens of organizations scrambling for the money they’ll need to keep their doors open.
The Basic Homeless Assistance Program (BHAP) provides up to $6 million a year to emergency shelters and transitional housing programs across Alaska. Last year 40 organizations were funded through the program in 20 communities across the state. The money can pay for anything from staffing costs to social work. Every year the grants help more than 13,000 of Alaska’s most vulnerable, an increasing number of whom are children: about one in five of Alaska’s homeless is under the age of 18, and one in three include a parent with a child.
Sue Steinacher with the Nome Emergency Shelter Team said the BHAP grant covers two thirds of the shelter’s annual expenses, and helped provide the money needed to get NEST off the ground.
“For NEST, [the BHAP grant] has been huge,” she said. “It is the grant that really got us up and running. It is far and away the largest grant that we receive, and it funds the lion’s share of the staffing at the shelter, which is essential.”
The yearly BHAP grants could soon disappear, one of the casualties of the state’s $3.5 billion budget crisis. The grant was stripped from Gov. Walker’s capital budget. Walker’s budget director Pat Pitney said that Walker’s first capital budget, stripped down from $550 million to $106 million, eliminated virtually every item that didn’t have matching federal funds; that included the BHAP grant program, as well as another grant program known as the Special Needs Housing Grant (SNHG).
“Governor Walker is putting in a very, very thin capital budget,” Pitney said. With the projected multi-billion dollar deficit, Pitney said “the focus is on reducing the budget as quickly as we can [and] the capital budget is the area where you can do that.”
The stripped-down budget Walker endorsed in late January grew to $150 million, but no funding has yet been allocated for new BHAP grants.
Mark Romick with the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, the public corporation that administers the BHAP funds, said there’s simply no backup if the BHAP program ends.
“There is no money in the Homeless Assistance Program,” Romick said. “If there is no money at the end of the process, the legislative session, then there won’t be any money for us to distribute to the grantees.”
In cities like Anchorage, losing BHAP grants would impact shelters like Brother Francis as well as Clare House, a shelter dedicated to housing women and children. Catholic Social Services Director Lisa Aquino said, at those shelters, the BHAP money goes directly to case management.
“Those case managers work with our clients who are living at the homeless shelters and connect them with services they need,” Aquino said. Case workers connect people with long-term housing, employment, treatment, and healthcare, Aquino said.
“Those case management services are really the ladder out of homelessness,” she added, “and without this grant funding, that latter is going to disappear.”
At smaller shelters, like NEST in Nome, the BHAP grants can be the difference between having an emergency shelter, or not.
“If we have no other funds to supplement the loss of this grant, it would pretty much, it would come very close to shutting down the shelter,” Steinacher said. “It is that significant a grant to our operations.”
For now, Steinacher said NEST can redirect local donations to keep the shelter running, but doing so would come at the expense of the shelter’s other programs, like sober housing and homeless prevention efforts.
Aquino with CSS said the way forward for her organization, and other BHAP grantees, is through engaging with lawmakers in Juneau, and making the case that funding the state’s shelters and homeless programs should be a top priority. A group of organizations representing BHAP and SNHG recipients plans to meet with budget officials in Juneau soon, and Romick with the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation said the agency is meeting to review its needs with the House and Senate finance committees on Friday.
Until then, shelters large and small in 20 communities across Alaska are waiting to see if they’ll have the funds needed to keep their doors open for another year.