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Safe As Houses



Ravalli County is the fastest growing county in Montana, and living space is at a premium from Florence to Sula. Take the growing rental rates, add a deposit-often equivalent to first and last month's rent-and restrictions about smoking and pets, and any housing is often beyond the means of the county's poorest residents.

So it's not hard to see why Supporters of an Abuse Free Environment (SAFE), Ravalli County's organization which helps victims of domestic violence, is joining the fight for affordable housing in the county.

At a public hearing last week in Hamilton, Stacy Umhi, SAFE director, called the group's proposal for a $100,000 federal Home Investment Partnership Program grant a "bridge to a self-sufficient life" for homeless domestic violence victims. "These people often go back to a life filled with violence because of a lack of housing," Umhi said. "They have nowhere to go and no money for housing."

The SAFE proposal targets a portion of $4.2 million available in Montana for such projects from the federal government's Department of Commerce. Any qualifying entity-a local government, a housing authority or a community housing organization-may apply for up to $400,000. According to Ravalli County planner Kevin McDonald, not all the 1998 grant money was requested and a $200,000 surplus is available this year in addition to the 1999 amount. Any successful grants will be administered through Ravalli County.

"This is designed for low- and very low-income households," McDonald said. "It can be used to purchase property, for new construction, for rent assistance, or to rehab existing homes."

Statistics give $35,400 as the median income for workers in Ravalli County. Low-income people make 60 percent of that or less ($21,240) and very low-income residents make only 35 percent of that figure ($12,390).

The SAFE proposal is for a "special populations" grant which specifically targets homeless victims of domestic violence. Under its terms, those who qualify could receive rent subsidies for up to two years.

"It gives them the time to learn skills and become more job-marketable," Umhi told the Ravalli County Commissioners and about two dozen community members at the public hearing. "Costs of domestic violence are huge and varied. This is a way to reduce those costs to the entire community."

SAFE received a Community Development Block Grant last year and construction has started on a transitional housing center for those in urgent need of SAFE's intervention and assistance. The new grant would take things a step further, allowing victims to remain independent while beginning a new life. It is estimated the grant would assist up to 20 individual victims and families over a two-year period.

The proposal is for "tenant-based" assistance, Umhi said, which means the domestic violence victim receives the rent money to pass on to a landlord of that person's choosing. In some other grants, funds are paid directly to qualifying landlords, who provide adequate housing.

"It's not tied to any one site. It could be anywhere in the county," Umhi said. Tenant-based assistance allows more choices for the recipient searching for a new home, but Umhi said there is a downside to the tenant-based program. If the qualifying recipient decides to allow an abusive partner to return to the home-and the home's income doesn't change as a result-the household would continue to receive assistance.

"We can't require that they take SAFE's services, we can only offer them," Omaha said. The hope is that the victim will find the courage to break free of an abusive relationship, if the need for a home is removed as one of the major problems.

Representatives of six other groups serving housing-deprived clients attended the meeting, including Ravalli Services Corporation (developmentally disabled adults), RiverFront Counseling (mentally ill adults), Summit Independent Living Center (physically handicapped adults), Head Start, and Adult Protective Services. All expressed support for SAFE's proposed grant.

Eight percent of the grant funds are set aside for administration, a process which takes hundreds of hours of paperwork for each grant. "It makes sense to put it together and make an administrative superstructure. We need to look at an aggregate plan," said John Filz, Head Start administrator.

"It would enhance the chances of a grant, if it had a larger scope," said Mike Chaffin, Ravalli Services director.

John Shauk of RiverFront Counseling said his clients often struggle with homelessness and lack of affordable housing and would benefit from rent subsidies.

Umhi said she thought there would be an overlap in the client bases-that some of the target victims of domestic violence were also clients of the other agencies. "Could we work together to do income verification and housing inspections, perhaps?" she asked the group.

Although there was a great deal of interest and enthusiasm for a larger grant among those at the hearing, McDonald sounded a cautionary note. Grant applications must be sent to the federal agency by Oct. 4, 1999.

"SAFE has been working on this for almost six months," McDonald said. "It may be too tight a time frame to put an additional proposal together this year. It might be better to work together on a larger grant for next year when all the issues are well thought out."

Joanne Perkins, director of Summit, said she regretted the short time frame. "We need to work together and we need to start somewhere, but perhaps this is not the place to do it right now."

The Ravalli County commissioners are united in their support of a housing assistance grant, regardless of its size. Commission Chairman Jack Atthowe encouraged the groups to work together and said the county is willing to administer any and all such grants-if proposals can be prepared in time for the October deadline.

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