Housing Forward opens shelter sites during deep freeze

Agency serving the homeless also faces government funding insecurity

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By Nona Tepper

As temperatures dip to what could be record-breaking lows, Housing Forward has opened shelter sites to serve as warming centers for those in need, while also facing uncertainty over what federal funding will look like in the coming months. Housing Forward is a Maywood-based nonprofit that serves those who are homeless or housing insecure.

"Between the confluence of weather conditions and another impending federal shutdown in three weeks, with funding and furloughed employees, that could potentially be disastrous," said Lynda Schueler, executive director.

About 40 percent — or $3.3 million — of Housing Forward's $8 million budget comes from U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants, an agency that closed during the longest government shutdown in history earlier this month. President Donald Trump and Congress agreed to temporarily reopen closed federal agencies without providing additional funding for the president's border wall on Jan. 25. Their agreement keeps the government open until Feb. 15, providing time for negotiators to try to compromise on border security and immigration policy, arguments over which essentially caused the original shutdown. If representatives are unable to agree on policy issues by then, the government could close again.

"There was a feeling of a little bit of insecurity," Schueler said during the last shutdown.

She said Housing Forward uses its grant funding to provide housing vouchers and pay landlords for more than 200 at-risk tenants in several communities, including Forest Park, Oak Park and Maywood. During the 35-day shutdown, Housing Forward still received grant funding from HUD's reserves but heard there could be delays in receiving housing voucher funding. 

"Our concern was that, if those landlords don't get paid and there's a delay, that that could put a household at risk of losing their housing and they would be displaced, and we would be impacted that way," she said.

Because federal employees were furloughed during the shutdown, they did not respond to Housing Forward's requests about how long the funding would last or any plans they had for the future. 

"Had this gone into the spring, and let's hope it doesn't do that, there will absolutely be an eminent threat because I'm sure HUD doesn't have several months of reserve at its disposal," Schueler said. "If the shutdown happens again, and that's what they're predicting in another three weeks, hopefully we'll get some guidance from the staff at HUD."

During the shutdown, she said Housing Forward wrote letters to members of Congress, asking representatives to negotiate a deal and pressing the importance of keeping federal funding to the nonprofit flowing. Funding uncertainty also hit during the winter, traditionally the most dangerous time for those who are homeless to stay outside. "I do expect the shelters to be packed, I'm sure we're going to be at full capacity," Schueler said.

She urged community members to call their representatives — Danny Davis (7th District) is the congressperson for Forest Park, Oak Park and River Forest — and also noted that the nonprofit is always accepting donations and volunteers. Housing Forward accepts financial donations, and is also looking for winter gear like boots, socks and gloves.

"HUD alone is not going to resolve [housing insecurity]; the federal government is not going to resolve this issue on its own," Schueler said. "Having community-level support to make sure that our agency itself is sustainable is important because too many people rely on our services."

CONTACT: ntepper@wjinc.com

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