The state’s latest budget proposal would reduce funding for homeless shelters by $862,000 over the next two years, even as Gov. Chris Sununu and other officials have said they’d like to see that aid restored to its current level.
The funds — administered via the State Grant-in-Aid Homeless Assistance program — help more than 20 organizations, including two in the Monadnock Region, provide emergency shelter and housing resources to people experiencing homelessness.
Officials with the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) calculated a budget request for that program in fiscal years 2022 and 2023 based on its disbursement in the current fiscal year, according to DHHS Commissioner Lori Shibinette. That disbursement, however, is less than half of the $6.9 million given to shelters this biennium because DHHS spent most of the money last year, Shibinette told the state’s Executive Council on June 2.
As a result, DHHS requested $6 million for the program — down more than 12 percent from current spending.
Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington, whose district spans the state and covers much of the Monadnock Region, said she noticed the spending cut in a DHHS contract that came before the council in early May. Warmington, a Concord Democrat, said DHHS has told her that the reduction to the homeless assistance program was a mathematical error, since officials used only the 2021 expenditure to calculate their budget proposal.
“It just resulted in this unintended underfunding of homeless shelters,” she said.
The $13.5 billion budget that the N.H. Senate passed last week would not restore funding for that program, Warmington told The Sentinel on Monday.
“I’m not sure anyone at the Senate level recognized what had happened here,” she said.
The state budget has not gone to Sununu’s desk yet, since there are differences between the Senate bill and the one passed by the N.H. House earlier this year that lawmakers from both chambers must reconcile.
Warmington said Monday that she has spoken with several legislators about restoring aid for the shelters and will continue to push for its inclusion in the final bill. She raised the issue at the Executive Council meeting on May 19, telling Sununu and the other four councilors that she believes DHHS had meant to fund shelters at the current spending level.
“Because of this anomaly … we are now in a position where we have $862,000 less budgeted for shelter services,” she said.
DHHS spokesman Jake Leon said Wednesday, however, that the reduction wasn’t an error by the department. Budget-drafting instructions were to use the spending figure from Fiscal Year 2021, he said, which was lower than expected for homeless shelters because the shelters overbilled DHHS the previous year.
Another DHHS spokeswoman, Kathy Remillard, indicated that DHHS proposed the reduction because New Hampshire had previously expected a significant revenue loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (State revenue has largely exceeded those projections, according to data collected by the N.H. Department of Revenue Administration.)
Warmington has urged her colleagues to ask that state lawmakers to fully restore the shelter funding, also requesting that DHHS provide updates on that effort.
Calling those funds a “critical need,” Christine Santaniello — who leads DHHS’ Division of Housing & Economic Stability — told the Executive Council last month that the agency has given shelters nearly $4 million in leftover federal pandemic aid, which she said could help cover the budget gap. She added, however, that those dollars expire in September 2022 — nearly a year before the end of the next biennium.
Two organizations that run shelters in the Monadnock Region — Hundred Nights Inc. and Southwestern Community Services — receive funding from the state’s homeless assistance program, according to the DHHS contract.
Hundred Nights Executive Director Mindy Cambiar said Wednesday she wasn’t aware of the budget cut, though she said DHHS officials told the Keene nonprofit earlier this year not to expect more funding in the next two years than it currently receives.
Hundred Nights, which operates a shelter on Lamson Street and a resource center for people experiencing homelessness, got $123,000 from the state program last year, Cambiar said. That money — one of the organization’s main sources of income — helps cover general operating costs, including its lease and staff salaries, she said.
“That is actually like the absolute backbone of our funding right now,” she said, adding that the potential reduction is “not good news.”
Under the contract DHHS submitted to the Executive Council last month, Hundred Nights would get about $3,000 less each year than in the current biennium.
Southwestern Community Services (SCS), which offers emergency shelter and social services in Cheshire and Sullivan counties, would lose nearly $63,000 over the next two years, compared to its current allotment, according to the DHHS contract. SCS officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
At the Executive Council meeting June 2 — the day before the Senate passed its budget bill — Warmington again encouraged councilors to push for restoring funds to the homeless assistance program.
“This is impacting the funding of shelters in every one of our districts,” she said.
Sununu, who leads the council meetings, also advocated for closing the budget gap but suggested multiple other sources to finance shelter services if that doesn’t happen. The state could give shelters some of the $1.5 billion it’s due to receive from the latest federal stimulus, Sununu said, adding that his administration may offer funds from the $200 million in federal housing aid that it has proposed spending on a range of housing-related issues.
“If the Legislature could replace that $800,000, that would be great,” he told the council. “… The [homeless assistance program] is important — don’t get me wrong — but there are so many more dollars out there.”
Warmington and Sununu agreed, however, that fully restoring funding for that program in the state budget would help ensure shelters’ long-term viability. Funding it at a lower rate, even once, would put DHHS officials in a difficult spot for the next round of budget negotiations, according to Warmington.
“Once you’ve lost money, it’s hard to get it back into the budget,” she said.