In 2015, an injury kept Matthew Boursaw out of work for 19 months. But he managed to stay housed because he qualified for a state rental assistance program for people who were temporarily disabled.
But last year, he injured himself again, and this time the same rental assistance program is flooded with applicants and has a long waiting list. So he’s living off $197 a month, and now he’s homeless.
“You can’t move forward at all when you’re on the street,” Boursaw, 48, said Tuesday.
Boursaw and homeless advocates are hoping the Legislature doubles the funding for the Housing and Essential Needs program (HEN) to get housing assistance for him and thousands of other low-income people.
The number of people eligible for the program quadrupled last year due to eligibility changes, and rising rents, low vacancy rates and a flat budget have slashed the number of households it can serve.
Lower Columbia Community Action Program in Longview runs the HEN program in Cowlitz County. Melissa Taylor, director of program development, said it helps people who are “really struggling.”
Taylor said HEN helped pay housing costs for a Cowlitz County woman living in her car after foot surgery. The program also allowed parents with a disabled son to get suitable housing while they waited to qualify for federal benefits.
The HEN program provides rental and transportation assistance and access to hygiene supplies for low-income individuals unable to work for at least 90 days because of a physical or mental incapacity.
The state has budgeted about $58 million per biennium for HEN since the program began in 2011, said David Hlebain with the Poverty Action Network. The group and other advocates are asking the Legislature for a $69 million increase to bring its two-year budget to $127 million. Hlebain said the allocation would support about 5,200 households.
“It’s a very ambitious ask,” he said. “But it’s important to us to ask reflective of the scale. We’re starting high because there is a significant need.”
Last year the program served 6,474 households in Washington. About 82 percent of those were at-risk of losing housing and the remaining 18 percent were already homeless.
The number of people eligible for the HEN program rose from about 5,800 to 25,000 during the year ending in October, according to the state Department of Commerce. The boost comes from a 2018 change in the law that allowed people who are declared permanently disabled to qualify for HEN assistance. Prior to that, only people considered temporarily disabled could qualify. That rendered many people homeless when their benefits were cut after they were declared permanently disabled.
The number of people eligible for HEN in Cowlitz County last fall was about 240, but with the expanded eligibility about 700 now can apply for assistance, Taylor said. Of those, about 100 were homeless, she said.
“We clearly can’t serve that many,” Taylor said.
HEN applicants are assessed through coordinated entry and ranked by vulnerability, Taylor said. Those who “languish on the list” are individuals determined to be less vulnerable, but their cases can get worse as they wait, she said.
“You have to look them in the eyes and tell them, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do much for you,’ ” Taylor said. “It’s really frustrating when you have new people added for the program with no increase in funding. It’s frustrating for the people it’s serving.”