- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 29, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) - A homeless shelter for battered spouses and their children sued the county’s Department of Human Services on Tuesday for $530,000 in federal housing funding.

The 20-year-old shelter in Shaler Township in western Pennsylvania is called HEARTH, short for Homelessness Ends with Advocacy, Resources, Training and Housing, and it caters to victims of domestic abuse. Officials there said Tuesday that Allegheny County officials have wrongly denied them a designation as a “victim service provider” under federal Housing and Urban Development funding rules.

HEARTH officials say the county is trying to make the shelter accept all homeless people, which undermines the special programs it maintains specifically for people fleeing domestic abuse.

“Their callous actions are jeopardizing the well-being of homeless families,” Judy Eakin, HEARTH’s executive director.

The HUD funding makes up about half the shelter’s annual budget.

DHS spokesman Mark Bertolet declined to comment on the lawsuit or the underlying dispute.

But he issued a statement saying the agency “remains committed to meeting our mission. That includes addressing the needs of our community’s homeless residents and those at risk of homelessness through the Allegheny County Continuum of Care Board (as required by HUD).”

A federal law requires homeless shelters to not discriminate, but exceptions are made if the local Continuum of Care Board determines the shelter provides a unique service that could be compromised if it were open to the general population.

Eakin said Tuesday that the Department of Human Services led HEARTH to believe that it was ready to grant that approval, but the board sent HUD a letter in July recommending against approval.

The shelter made one of its former clients available to be interviewed Tuesday by The Associated Press on the condition she not be identified, which it said was for her protection.

The woman said she was 43 with two sons, 13 and 9, when she separated from her husband because of physical and other abuse in 2010.

She spent 11 months at HEARTH and three years in a support program afterward, which allowed her to leave her current job, be trained as a paralegal and obtain an apartment where she still lives with her sons.

The woman told the AP that she went straight from her parents’ home into marriage and didn’t know how to live on her own until HEARTH intervened.

The lawsuit seeks a court order designating HEARTH as a victim service provider. The HUD funding has already been designated to HEARTH but won’t be released without that designation.

Eakin said the shelter can survive for up to about 18 months without it but can’t raise enough money to continue without the funding.

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