With HEN program, DSHS succeeds by doing less with less
State lawmakers in 2011 eliminated Disability Lifeline, a program that gave cash to people who can’t work because of a disability. In its place, they created a new program to distribute household items such as dish soap, toothpaste and mops, and continued to offer clients vouchers for housing.
That covered the needs of disabled people without handing out cash, which some lawmakers feared would be spent on drugs and alcohol.
Now, the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) and the Department of Commerce are calling the creation of HEN, which stands for Housing and Essential Needs, a success.
A report released Feb. 14, “Washington State’s Housing and Essential Needs Program: Impacts on Housing Status, Use of Food Assistance, Arrests, Incarcerations and Health Outcomes,” said getting rid of cash benefits hasn’t made things worse for poor people.
“We were concerned that the elimination of Disability Lifeline and the related decrease in funding would hurt the state’s progress in reducing homelessness,” Commerce Deputy Director Dan McConnon said in a statement. “Instead, the switch to housing and other assistance is helping our state combat homelessness.”
According to the report, which was conducted by DSHS, HEN recipients have greater housing stability, use food stamps at higher rates and are less likely to be incarcerated. Other states that eliminated cash assistance programs saw a spike in homelessness among the former clients. HEN, according to the state, avoids that.
But HEN is not all it’s cracked up to be. While HEN costs a third of what it cost to run the Disability Lifeline cash program, it does less, too. Clients get a lower dollar-value of resources than before and fewer people benefit. Before it was eliminated, 20,000 people used Disability Lifeline.
Under HEN, about 9,000 are eligible, but just 3,000 receive support from HEN each month.
DSHS’s study of HEN only focuses on the housing aspect of the program. It doesn’t address the Essential Needs aspect, which is lacking. Disability Lifeline provided $197 cash assistance each month for each client to purchase essential household items. Now, clients have to find a state-contracted distributor and hope they can find the household items, such as toilet paper, they need. In King County, Catholic Community Services distributes the goods.
The report also fails to acknowledge that many of the former Disability Lifeline clients never made it onto HEN.
Robin Zukoski, government relations coordinator for Columbia Legal Services, a law and advocacy organization that works on behalf of low-income people, said there’s no way to know what happened to those clients without seeking them out.
“What [the DSHS report] doesn’t look at is what’s happening to the rest of the population,” Zukoski said.
Even though it provides a third of the budget and meets a third of the need, HEN is better than nothing, said Michele Thomas, policy and advocacy director for the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.
Legislators cut $5 million from HEN in the last legislative session because client numbers were low. This legislative session, Thomas and Zukoski are working to make sure the program is not cut further as the state adjusts its budget to fully fund public education.
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