Miami-Dade County

Budget glitch may strip millions from organizations that serve homeless people

The Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter in Key West. South Florida programs that serve the homeless stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money because of a glitch in state budget language.
The Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter in Key West. South Florida programs that serve the homeless stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money because of a glitch in state budget language.

What will Florida do with a $4.1 million grant earmarked for homeless organizations across the state? Nothing, apparently.

While the Florida Legislature granted spending authority to the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) for services to homeless people, it did not provide language for the agency to actually use some of the money. The funds in question are part of a "Challenge Grant," recurring grants that have provided $20 million over four years to organizations that serve the homeless. For years, the money has been distributed without incident. But this year, a glitch in the budget's language will likely leave millions of dollars unspent — including hundreds of thousands of dollars that would have gone to South Florida agencies.

Florida's fiscal year starts July 1. As the days leading up to the 2018-19 fiscal year dwindle, politicians and leaders from organizations that serve the homeless are scrambling to put the money to use.

"We just have to hope it gets done in the next several days so programs don’t have to close, lay off employees, and take people out of housing and put them back on the street," said Ronald Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust.

David Frady, communications director of the DCF, said that although the Florida legislature did not appropriate funding for the Challenge Grant for homelessness services, the state has provided other sources of funding.

"There is an additional $1.7 million in federal Emergency Solutions Grant funding that will carry over and be allocated to the local continuums of care for homelessness services," Frady said. "DCF will continue to work with all our federal and state partners to help every individual in need have a safe place to call home."

However, even with the $1.7 million, homelessness funding for the 2018-19 fiscal year is down to $10.4 million from just under $14 million last year. The potential cuts include $158,000 for Miami-Dade, $200,000 for Broward County and $258,800 for Monroe County.

"It just fell off the table," said Book. "Obviously if they didn't want to fund the grants, they would've taken the money and put it somewhere else in the budget."

The confusion stems from language in the budget. In past years, the Legislature provided lines that transferred funds from the Florida Housing Finance Corp. to the Department of Children and Families. This year, that language was inadvertently excluded.

"Everybody has been trying to get it done," said Eugene Williams, president of the Florida Coalition for the Homeless. "And it's a really simple fix. It's just a transfer of funds from one state agency to another."

Williams said the Challenge Grant was started many years ago to fund grants for projects that were not covered under federal guidelines across the state. The program funds over 28 programs for the homeless across the state. This year the grants were funded at $5 million. The two largest shares went to move people directly from homelessness and into housing (39 percent) and for case management services (24 percent), according to Susan Pourciau, director of the Florida Housing Coalition Ending Homelessness Team.

Book said that these potential cuts would be especially dangerous for homeless people who rely on rent subsidies and job training programs.

"Here they are, getting their lives back settled, re-assimilated back into productive society, and now you're going to put them back in the streets," Book said. "If we don't get this worked out in the next few days, all these programs have to tell their recipients, 'We don't have the funds to take care of you moving forward.'"

However, Book said that the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust will be the least affected of homelessness organizations across the state. Its budget of approximately $65 million is much larger than similar organizations' budgets. He warned that programs across the Panhandle, for example, would have no way to plug the budget hole.

With the fiscal year beginning in less than a week, lawmakers and other leaders statewide are looking for solutions for continuing to provide services for those who need it.

While most providers seem skeptical that the money will go through, Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, expressed optimism that the state Legislature will reach a deal.

"It's my understanding that there are funds available through the DCF budget," Simpson said. "We should have a substantial amount of funding going toward [the Challenge Grant]."

He added that although he believes that funding will go through, it would still need to be approved by both houses, and there's been "no assurance" that it will happen. He could not say exactly how much money would be potentially provided.

"I think we need to look comprehensively at how we fund the homeless," Simpson said. "I think it's something we'll spend more time talking about in the coming years as we move forward here."