Federal eviction moratorium complicates student homelessness prevention program

Funds became available Oct. 1, but how to administer them and who qualifies yet to be clarified

The setting sun casts shadows on an apartment building in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood on Sept. 30, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

A newly expanded homelessness prevention program out of Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs aims to give a handful of school districts the ability to provide direct financial assistance to families experiencing housing instability. But despite the funds becoming available Oct. 1, state housing officials and their nonprofit partners are still scrambling to figure out how to administer the federal funds — and who qualifies for them.

“We are still really working through some of the policies and procedures on how those funds are going to be administered. It’s not all set in stone yet,” said Cassie Ratliff, director for homelessness programs for the Family Tree in Wheat Ridge. “We’re working through that with the Division of Housing and with our partners with Jeffco Public Schools.”

The expansion provides $2.16 million to the state’s existing Next Step Homeless Prevention assistance program to support an estimated 225 households in six school districts: St. Vrain Valley, Boulder Valley, Adams County 14, 27J Schools, Jefferson County and Sheridan School District No. 2. Each school district is partnered with a community organization that will administer the funds.

One of the most immediate barriers is that the funding, made available through the CARES Act Emergency Solutions Grants, requires families to prove they will lose their housing within 21 days — a particular challenge with a federal eviction moratorium in place. 

“We are confirming with (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), but as we have heard thus far, these funds cannot be used for prevention support while eviction moratoria are in effect,” said Brett McPherson, a spokesman for the Division of Local Affairs, in an email on Wednesday. McPherson added that families might still qualify for other housing assistance programs within Colorado’s Division of Housing.

Last year, 22,224 students attending Colorado K-12 public schools were homeless, doubled up, or unstably housed, according to the Colorado Department of Education. State officials and school district administrators expect that number to swell in response to the economic crisis spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.

Who qualifies — and how to apply

There is currently no application for families to apply for the funding. In order to qualify, students must first be identified and referred by the school district’s homeless outreach coordinator, known as the McKinney-Vento liaison. Then they must go through the referral process with the school district’s community partner and meet the following criteria: 

  1. The individual or family has income below 50% of median income for the geographic area
  2. The individual or family has insufficient resources immediately available to attain housing stability
  3. Meets 1 of the 7 risk factors from the list below:
    • Has moved frequently because of economic reasons; 
    • Is living in the home of another because of economic hardship; 
    • Has been notified that their right to occupy their current housing or living situation will be terminated within 21 days; 
    • Lives in a hotel or motel; 
    • Lives in severely overcrowded housing; 
    • Is exiting an institution; 
    • Otherwise lives in housing that has characteristics associated with instability and an increased risk of homelessness  

The funds can be used to pay back rent for up to six months, including late fees, according to McPherson. The assistance can last up to 24 months, but families must be “recertified” every six months. Program case managers determine how much money a family receives by looking at household income, rent amount and other expenses such as utilities, food, transportation and medical bills.

“We definitely want to get people caught up and we want to get people to a place that, come end of the year when these moratoriums are lifted, that they don’t owe landlords 15-, 16-, $17,000,” Ratliff said. “Because nobody can get out from under that. That’s crippling debt.” 

‘Drop in the bucket’ compared to need

Ashley Dunn, executive director of Almost Home in Brighton, who has partnered with the 27J Schools, said that she’s forging ahead with the program despite the lack of clarity around the 21-day notice requirement.

“There’s always some workarounds with situations like this,” Dunn said. “We’re usually able to get documentation from the landlord that says, ‘This is what you’re behind on and, you know, this is going to be the outcome.”

She said hundreds of students have already been identified as homeless in the 27J school district. The new homeless prevention funding her organization received from the state will only support 25 families. The district currently doesn’t have a designated McKinney-Vento liaison, but it is in the process of hiring one. 

“So, this is obviously only going to be able to help a small amount of children and families,” she said, adding that her organization provided homeless prevention assistance to 722 households, including 857 children, last school year.

Though the funds don’t expire until Sept 30, 2022, they will likely run out much sooner. 

Gaelyn Freeney-Coyle, homeless program specialist in the state’s office of homeless initiatives, said that the new funds are a “tiny drop in the bucket” in comparison to the level of need. 

“We are certainly aware of the needs out there,” Freeney-Coyle said. “And so I think that, obviously, it’s going to be much more the case that districts are going to lack this resource because of that fact.”