--- Issued October 18, 2013

Community Shelter Services 40th Anniversary Celebration
Remarks By
John E. Horan, Executive Director
Housing Authority of the City of Erie

Congratulations to the Board and Staff of Community Shelter Services on your 40 years of service to the most needy families and individuals in our community.

Your record of service is second to none. Anyone who has contributed to the success of Community Shelter Services should rightly be proud of this day, and every day, of your 40 year existence.

Established in 1973 as a 12-bed emergency shelter (The Drop In Center) under the leadership of Mother Mary Beth Kennedy and the Reverend Charles Kennedy, CSS has evolved into a multi-faceted housing and support services provider for homeless men, women and children.
The Housing Authority and CSS have much in common. Just last Friday, we celebrated our 75th anniversary.  More importantly, our missions are very similar: to help those who are at, or near, the bottom of the economic ladder with safe and affordable housing and to assist them on their road toward economic self-sufficiency.

Our history over the last 25 years has included a meaningful partnership between the two agencies. Through our role as the Administrator of the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program in the City of Erie, we have been able to help CSS with two of their major permanent housing initiatives: Columbus Square Apartments and the Lodge-on-Sass.

In 1989, shortly after CSS negotiated a long-term lease for the Columbus School building at 655 W. 16th Street, the Housing Authority signed an agreement with CSS to attach Section 8 Vouchers to 40 Single Room Occupancy units on two floors of the old school. We still provide those vouchers today.

Over the past 24 years, we have provided rental assistance payments to CSS totaling $2.3 million on behalf of 600 different individuals who have resided at Columbus Apartments.

In December 2001, HACE provided $100,000 toward CSS’ outright purchase of Columbus School. In 2004, HACE provided $250,000 for needed capital improvements at the building.  

In 1998, we assisted CSS in obtaining a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to purchase and renovate the vacant Travelodge Motel at 9th and Sassafras Streets. Dedicated on May 5, 1999 this building has provided 50 Single Room Occupancy units for previously homeless individuals.

As with most affordable housing, the Lodge-On-Sass was not an easy sell. CSS had to battle a NIMBY (not in my backyard) suit by their neighbor, the Erie Business School. That neighbor wanted to stop the project, so it opposed a City of Erie zoning code variance on the number of parking spaces. Today, I walked through the parking lots at the Lodge, and nine of the 25 parking spots were occupied. It should come as no surprise that homeless people have fewer vehicles than motel customers.   

Over the past 14 years, the Housing Authority has provided $1.4 million in Section 8 funding to assist CSS in providing safe and affordable housing for more than 320 previously homeless individuals to reside at the Lodge-On-Sass.

HACE has also provided nearly $217,000 for needed capital improvements at the Lodge-On-Sass.

Many years ago, the Housing Authority realized that just providing safe, decent and affordable housing is not the panacea that was hoped for when affordable housing was created by actions of Congress and President Roosevelt in 1937. As times changed, and as our type of housing became the housing of last resort for people who had no other options, we realized our mission had to be expanded to provide support services to help our residents solve the problems that forced them into our housing in the first place: lack of education and job skills, unemployment, child care, mental health issues, drug and alcohol addictions, to name just a few.

Every housing provider, including CSS, faced these same issues. In 1998, the Housing Authority entered into yet another contract with CSS to provide funding for an on-site Intensive Case Manager at both Columbus Apartments and the Lodge-on-Sass. These staff members were to assess and then assist the residents in accessing community programs and services that would help them on their journey toward self-sufficiency.

In the past 15 years, HACE has provided over $1.2 million toward the cost of case managers at the Columbus Apartments and the Lodge-On-Sass.

So why has the Erie Housing Authority been your best and most enduring partner (to the tune of $5.6 million) over the last 25 years? I have a two-word answer to that question -- KITTY CANCILLA!

Under Kitty’s leadership, since 1982, CSS has focused on the most difficult segment of the needy population in our community. Kitty has made our job at the Housing Authority easier by taking on a portion of the population that is the most difficult to shelter successfully. The single male and female population made homeless by virtue of the personal challenges life has handed them that they were unable to deal with successfully on their own: unemployment, drugs, abuse, alcoholism, and mental health problems, often times leading to dysfunctional and sometimes to criminal behavior.

The Housing Authority will always respect and honor what Kitty Cancilla and CSS has done for our community.  You are the true unsung heroes of Erie. You labor with the “least of our brethren” with little recognition for your efforts. I will always answer Kitty’s calls and do whatever I can to help.

I would be remiss if I did not close these remarks without spending a few minutes talking about the future.

Unfortunately, the last few years have not been good ones for those of us who provide affordable housing to the lower income households in our communities. Since 1937, this country has had a federal law that at least partially addressed the need for affordable housing. Housing legislation has been amended many times through the decades by various administrations and congresses, both Democrat and Republican.

Although not the highest of priorities, housing was always on the radar as a national issue that should not be ignored. The common good of the country dictates that we provide temporary housing assistance for those who cannot afford decent private sector shelter.

Now, things are different. In the past five years in this country, allocation of federal funding for our two largest affordable housing programs (public housing and Section 8) has been eviscerated.

There are over 3,300 housing authorities across this country providing housing assistance to over 4.2 million households. In Erie alone, the Housing Authority provides assistance to 3,000 families, including those helped by CSS. So here is what has happened to the annual funding for the Erie Housing Authority programs since 2008.

•    Federal Operating subsidy for public housing cut from $5.3 million to $4.7 million.

•    Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher funding cut from $5.4 million to $3.6 million.

•    Capital Fund allocation cut from $3.7 million to $2.7 million.

•    Section 8 operating reserves reduced from $503,142 to $306,780, a one month cushion.

Overall, we have had to absorb a 24 percent funding reduction ($3.6 million) in five short years.

These cuts are not sustainable. And, there is no end in sight. Yesterday, Congress simply kicked the can down the road for another four months. The affordable housing program in this country is headed toward an end if the cuts of the last five years continue. Housing authorities without cash reserves have already given up on operating the Section 8 Voucher program, and some have merged or gone out of business altogether.

Finally, let me tell you about the demand for affordable housing.

For the last two years, HACE has been at 98 percent occupancy. For our public housing program, we have 629 eligible families on our waiting list. In the Section 8 program, we have not been able to help anyone on a separate waiting list for 11 months. We haven’t taken new applications for Section 8 assistance since December 2009, and we still have 526 families on the waiting list. The only way we are able to help a needy family, who has been waiting for years, is if someone else moves out. In these economic times, that doesn’t happen very often.

To complicate matters further, the population we serve has very little clout with our elected officials. They have no money with which to curry favor, and by and large they don’t vote.

So, organizations like CSS and the HACE must do the heavy lifting by advocating for those we represent. Please let the media and your elected officials at every level know about the tremendous value of what you do. If you don’t do it, no one will.

Thank you!