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Feds grant Utah $10.3 million to help homeless

SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Thursday released detailed information about $2 billion in funding to homelessness services providers — including more than $10 million to Utah groups — calling it a record-breaking distribution from the grant program known as Continuum of Care.

The $10,381,345 awarded to nonprofits in the Beehive State is an increase from $10,089,585 distributed the previous year through the federal program.

Shaleane Gee, director of initiatives and special projects for Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams' office, called the increase in funds compared to last year "a relatively small amount, but still a good amount."

"We were really pleased with this year's award," Gee said.

Utah organizations that apply for grants are divided into three geographic areas. For one of those areas, Gee said, Salt Lake County operates as a coordinator providing "backbone support" among numerous service providers who qualify for funds under the Continuum of Care program, helping the various groups jointly apply for grants.

"The folks participating are a broad range of all the service providers, advocates, funders," Gee said.

In Utah, 51 organizations and initiatives received funding, while there were more than 7,000 nationwide.

Valerie Walton, policy and programs director of special projects for Salt Lake County, said "most providers are affected" by the Continuum of Care grant revenue stream.

"It's one of the funding streams, along with behavioral health care from the federal government that's critical to the (homelessness services) system as a whole," Walton told the Deseret News.

In all, the federal government awarded $2,011,348,825 to the 50 states, which Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said is a record amount for Continuum of Care grants.

The funding stream focuses largely on groups that provide housing services of some kind to those experiencing homelessness.

"We're looking at evidence. We want to see things that are actually working and prevent homelessness where possible," Carson said in a conference call with reporters.

He said his own career as a surgeon has "taught me a great deal about the role housing plays in a person's health."

"To be succesful (in treating a patient), but then have to send them back into a horrible environment — I always felt terrible about that," Carson said.

Housing and Urban Development has reported that 553,742 people experienced homelessness during a one-night count in 2017, which was 0.7 percent more than was reported the year before, though estimates of homelessness for families with children is down 5.4 percent in the United States since 2016.

Carson said a critical component of reducing homelessness lies in solving the affordable housing plight facing many areas of the country, which is where the Continuum of Care grant program comes in.

"There's a very significant affordable housing crisis going on in our country," he said.

Carson later lauded nonprofits' efforts to expand housing opportunities to the poorest of Americans, saying that "while it's the human thing to do, we also know that it's good public policy."

"Quite simply, housing a person experiencing homelessness is cheaper than not housing them, and we must learn to be pragmatic and compassionate at the same time," he said.

Gee said federal officials indicated this year that they would prefer to fund existing programs shown to to be efficacious rather than putting money toward new initiatives without a prior track record.

"We made a really concerted effort to apply for funding that would help us increase the effectiveness of our existing programs. … What we're focused on is aligning local efforts to improve existing services and that's what was reflected in this award," she told the Deseret News.

Gee called it "a really tough year" in terms of keeping up with "rapidly changing" criteria weighted in the grant process, but said she felt the state weathered it well.

"Things are changing rapidly, so we're very pleased with (our) result," she said.

Continuum of Care grants to Utah groups have increased every year since at least 2013, when the total amount distributed was just $7,262,907.

"(There) are individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness for a multitude of reasons — sometimes temporary, and sometimes long term and chronic disabing conditions," Carson said. "(The) Continuum of Care program — it's a program that goes to the very heart of the HUD mission. … It really means, instead of setting up a bunch of requirements before we help people, we get them off the street."