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Begging for Change

City council allots minimal funding for costly action plan on homelessness.

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With proper funding, every homeless person in Memphis will be offered a place to stay over the next decade, according to Mayor A C Wharton's Action Plan to End Homelessness.

But so far, the plan is far from reaching its funding goal. On June 7th, the Memphis City Council allotted $250,000 for the plan, but the estimated annual cost of the entire plan is more than $7 million.

First introduced in January, the plan aims to house half of the city's homeless population over the next five years and eventually meet the lofty goal of ending homelessness in Memphis in 10 years. But considering the amount of funding needed, the decision to invest only a quarter-million of the city's funds has troubled some advocates for the homeless.

Among those uneasy with the amount allotted is Brad Watkins, organizing coordinator for the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center. Watkins said without proper funding, the plan is nothing more than "pretty words on paper."

"This plan could save the city and county governments millions of dollars. More importantly, it could save lives," Watkins says. "The fact is, we can get money for other projects, but when we talk about people, somehow $250,000 is the best the city can do."

Katie Kitchin is the project consultant for the Memphis and Shelby County Committee to End Homelessness, the organization that developed the 10-year plan. She said the $250,000 allotted would be spent on launching a new Community Alliance to End Homelessness.

That group will be charged with obtaining the additional funding needed to successfully implement the plan. The allotted city funds will be used to pay salaries for alliance members, manage a homeless database, and fund the organization's start-up.

"That [$250,000] is basically seed funding," Kitchin says. "Our estimate is that it's going to take about $7 million a year to fully implement the plan, but that's not something we would seek to have in place immediately."

Eventually, the plan should provide 500 units of additional permanent housing, reduce the amount of transitional housing by 300 units, and enhance emergency shelter resources for domestic violence victims.

Kitchin said there would be an additional $12 million requested for the conversion of some of the city's transitional housing units into permanent housing units. Transitional units only allow people to stay for a limited amount of time, whereas permanent housing provides affordable (or sometimes free) housing to people in need.

Although $250,000 of city funds is going toward the project, Kitchin said the alliance has applied for federal grants that would award them around $2.4 million of the $7 million needed this year.

They hope to receive additional funding from the county government, faith-based community programs, and various charitable foundations.

In late January, the city's annual homeless head count totaled 1,982 people, an increase of 20 percent over last year.

"You have to understand that that only applied to where you slept last night," Watkins says. "It doesn't count people who were in jail or in the hospital that night. It doesn't count if you were in a nightly motel, or in a rooming house, or if your buddy let your sleep on his couch that night.

"That count was also before the flooding. It doesn't take into account the people that are going to be displaced because the flood has condemned their home."

Watkins says it's going to take support from the entire community to ensure that the plan is successful.

"There are a dozen different reasons why people become homeless," Watkins says. "Foreclosures, fires, flooding, mental illness, substance abuse, job loss, health, medical bills, and death of a spouse. This plan speaks to all of those. We as a community just have to decide that we're going to value people. If we do, it'll save us money."

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