An Illinois program that has a solid track record of preventing families from becoming homeless due to temporary crises in their finances is about to run out of money. The Illinois Homeless Prevention Program provides small grants to families that help them weather short-term financial problems that threaten to force them out of their homes. In 2010, the average grant was $916—which shows just how thin the line is between being housed and being homeless for many Illinois families.

The grants are available when “there’s a specific short-term crisis—like unexpectedly high medical bills or a delay in your disability check—that is preventing you from making your rent or mortgage payment,” says Julie Dworkin, policy director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Her agency says that the grants have gone to some 96,000 Illinois families since the program began in 1999, and its research indicates that over 85 percent of each year’s grant recipients are still in their homes four months into the next year. “This program does what it’s intended to do,” Dworkin says. “It keeps people from becoming homeless.”

But it’s running out of money. The program, which received $11 million from Illinois in the 2008 fiscal year, received just $1.5 million—or 87 percent less—this year. Federal stimulus money made up the difference for a few years, but that’s gone.

The result, according to a survey the coalition released Monday, is that more than half the agencies in Illinois that provide these homeless prevention grants will have spent all their funds by December 31. Others, Dworkin says, “are portioning out what they have to get through the [fiscal] year.” Chicago, for one, is trying to make $400,000 last until next summer; it used to get over $3 million for a year’s worth of grants. “They turned away 1,000 people in the first quarter of the fiscal year,” Dworkin says.

At the same time, funding for the state’s emergency and transitional housing programs also dropped, by 52 percent, to $4.7 million this year. In 2010, 54 percent of users of the programs—more than 22,700 people—moved into permanent or two-year transitional housing. That dropped to 37 percent this year—largely, the coalition believes, because of the increased difficulty in finding jobs.

These cuts are happening at a time when the risk of homelessness is rising. Dworkin notes that a key measure of homelessness in Chicago—the number of homeless students in Chicago Public Schools—has risen by 24 percent since the 2008-2009 school year. “We’re hearing from the shelters that they’re seeing so many more middle-class families now,” she adds.

The coalition and other agencies are pushing to get state funding restored or increased in the veto sessions coming up in the next few weeks, or in Governor Quinn’s budget for the 2012 fiscal year, to be released in February. Dworkin acknowledges that the state’s financial situation may force major reductions in services of all types. But, she suggests, “there are other places to cut that are less vital than the basic safety net for people experiencing a financial crisis.”

And allowing a family to fall into homelessness when as little as $916 could have prevented it, she says, is just kicking the can down the road. “People who become homeless [may] fall into criminal activity for their survival, or they may have really costly medical bills,” Dworkin says. “Those things end up costing the state more.”