City program helps Berkeley community members ‘move up’ from homelessness

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Jihoon Park/Staff

For George Cassity, a member of Berkeley’s homeless population, living without shelter has health repercussions that go beyond those that the average person might experience. Cassity has lung cancer, and one complication of his treatment is that being out in the sun for longer than 30 minutes could worsen his condition.

Cassity has been homeless for eight years now and has been unable to receive housing assistance or secure a spot in a shelter. Now, Cassity is looking into trying to participate in the city’s Moderate Rehabilitation Housing Program, which subsidizes the cost of single room occupancy units, or SROs, and provides supportive services for 98 homeless and disabled individuals in the city of Berkeley.

“I try to tuck under the shade and stuff,” Cassity said. “I do what I can.”

SROs are currently rented out of University Avenue Homes and Erna P. Harris Courts. Individuals in the Moderate Rehabilitation Housing Program pay 30 percent of their income — with a minimum contribution of $50 per month — toward their rent.

But according to Tia Ingram, executive director of the Berkeley Housing Authority, or BHA, individuals who address their challenges and no longer require supportive services often cannot acquire housing assistance outside the program. Thus, they are unable to move on from the SRO unit and create space for other homeless individuals.

“There are people who have been there over 20 years,” said Carole Marasovic, chair of the city’s homeless commission.

Waitlists for Section 8, a government-issued voucher program that subsidizes participants’ rents, have been closed since 2012, according to Ingram.

When waitlists were last opened, more than 37,000 people applied and a portion were placed on the waitlist by random lottery. About 1,300 of these applicants were offered vouchers.

The Berkeley Housing Authority’s response to this lack of spaces is Project Move UP, a program that will allow 10 individuals in the Moderate Rehabilitation Housing Program each year to bypass the standard Section 8 application process and be placed on the waitlist by referral.

The individuals chosen to participate in this program will remain able to pay just 30 percent of their income toward rent once they leave the Moderate Rehabilitation Housing Program.

“It gives them hope that they’re not stuck in an SRO (unit) for life,” Marasovic said.

The payment standard, or maximum amount that BHA can subsidize, for an SRO unit is $1,086, whereas the standard for an apartment with no bedroom is $1,449 and for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,746.

BHA will use about $134,000 to fund the Project Move UP’s administrative costs for a five-year pilot program.

Ingram said the program takes a dual approach to aiding homeless and formerly homeless individuals. Ten individuals already residing in SROs are offered the opportunity to progress to a larger unit and, in the process, open up 10 spots for homeless individuals, such as Cassity, to enter the SRO program.

“Project Move UP is part of that whole continuum of moving that person to a permanent stable situation,” Ingram said.

Project Move UP then would support 20 individuals transitioning from homelessness per year, adding up to 100 over the course of the pilot program.

Although BHA does not keep statistics on individuals who leave the Moderate Rehabilitation Housing Program, Ingram also noted that the lack of resources available for individuals once they leave could result in them lapsing back into homelessness.

Ingram called Project Move UP “the only permanent solution” to the problem of homelessness in Berkeley. Unlike shelters and other forms of transitional housing, Project Move UP is a graduated program, designed to support individuals in the long term.

Marasovic, however, noted that just because participants in the program will have access to housing assistance vouchers does not guarantee that they will be able to find property owners who will accept them.

Guy “Mike” Lee, a mayoral candidate and member of the homeless community, shared similar concerns, noting that the inability for landlords to opt out of Section 8 contracts is often a disincentive for taking tenants who receive housing assistance.

“From a business perspective, nobody is going to handcuff themselves (to this program),” Lee said.

Lee added that he felt the city should not be addressing the longterm goal of providing permanent housing before first addressing the more immediate problem of getting people off the streets. He added that Project Move UP only supports a fraction of Berkeley’s homeless community.

In a recent count, there were about 800 homeless individuals in Berkeley, more than 500 of whom were unsheltered, according to Marasovic.

“The priority has to be to get as many people shelter as possible,” Lee said

Marasovic stressed, however, that it is important to employ a variety of different methods to address the homelessness crisis in Berkeley and that Project Move UP is designed not to solve the problem completely, but to mitigate it.

BHA plans to initiate Project Move UP in September or October 2016.

 

Contact Jessica Lynn at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @jessicailynn.