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Stimulus funds help shelter Ky. families

Some $12 million in stimulus money will help an estimated 23,000 Kentuckians from becoming homeless in the next three years — but, officials say, it's only about a third of what frontline workers requested.

The money is Kentucky's share of a $1.5 billion Homelessness Prevention Fund that was released this fall. The Housing and Emergency Assistance Reaching program, or HEARTH, is aimed at renters who are on the verge of eviction. Many were once middle-class families who because of the financial crisis have already lost the homes they owned to foreclosure.

"People are having just a really hard time out there," said Heidi Winans, housing program specialist for Bluegrass Community Action, which serves nine counties. Although the Bluegrass Community Action program has been in operation only a few months, Winans said, there are already 70 people on a waiting list in Franklin County alone.

"We are dealing with people in crisis every day," said Cheryl Talbert, head of Adult and Tenant Services, which is handling the program in Fayette County. "Everybody is a priority when someone is about to be homeless."

Lexington, Louisville and Corbin applied for and received money directly from the federal government and are not included in the state's $12 million grant. Lexington received $850,000, Talbert said, but could use more.

Groups who received money from the state asked for three times the amount they were allotted, said Davey King, director of specialized housing resources for the Kentucky Housing Corp., which is administering the program.

"Homelessness in Kentucky is not the stereotypical homelessness you see in the media and in the movies: ... the single male who is walking down the street with the shopping cart, that kind of thing.

"For the most part in Kentucky, homelessness really has to do with families," he said.

As the economy has worsened and more people have lost their jobs or had work hours cut, families are moving in with relatives or friends.

While Kentucky doesn't have the tent cities that have been erected in some states, Winans said, her agency has helped people who were living in barns or, in one instance, a tent by the Kentucky River.

In addition to meeting income guidelines, participants must prove that after three months of rental subsidy they will ultimately be able to get back on their feet. Talbert said the idea is that during those three months, families could set aside some money to avoid another emergency. To be eligible, renters must also have already received a letter from their landlord saying they are at least seven days late on the payments.

Talbert said most participants are having a hard time finding employment but have a solid work history.

Most are not familiar with the social services system, and many are not aware the program even exists because it is so new. Even then, she said, "Pride won't let people reach out and ask for help" until it is too late and eviction is already under way.

Although the program can help relocate families that are evicted, there are very limited options for where they can stay in the meantime, especially in rural areas. Even in Lexington, Talbert said, the Salvation Army is one of the few options, and that shelter is increasingly full.

The problem is compounded by the lack of affordable housing, King said. Any house or apartment must pass an inspection before federal money can be spent. And there are caps on what can be spent — the program won't pay more than $551 a month in rent for a one-bedroom home.

"It's a huge barrier. It's extremely difficult to find a unit that meets acceptable housing standards," said Anne Colly Rose. "In some cases, they've had to turn the funds back because they couldn't find a unit."

But there is help available. And the grant requires that the bulk of the money be spent in the first two years.

For many, a little help is life-changing, Winans said: "There was one woman in Woodford County, she just sat in the office and cried."