A vaguely defined federal program aimed at providing temporary shelter to America's homeless poor has helped some of them -- but it also has placed the keys of high-dollar homes in the hands of church officials, congregation members and other people in the Dallas-Fort Worth area who appear no more needy than middle America's average worker, an examination by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has found.
"Obviously, these kinds of abuses are unacceptable," said an exasperated Walt Sevier, deputy administrator of the Department of Housing and Urban Development's five-state region that includes Texas. "I don't want to overreact, but that is simply obscene."
Regulations that define a homeless person as virtually anyone without a permanent home -- regardless of income -- and HUD's failure to set limits on the size and value of homes they can occupy have allowed questionable placements in taxpayer-subsidized homes for the cost of an average monthly car payment.
The newspaper's examination revealed that:
* Bill Robinson, an ex-convict turned Baptist minister, moved into a two-story, taxpayer-subsidized home in Arlington, Texas, that was appraised at $92,000 -- even though his non-profit company's net worth will soon exceed $1 million.
At least three other Texas pastors or members of their families are living in HUD homes meant for the homeless. All the pastors said they or their family members qualified for a HUD home under the government's guidelines because they were either strapped for cash or facing eviction from previous homes.
* College-educated construction contractor Robert Holton lost his $126,000 Fort Worth home when his business faltered and his monthly income dropped to $1,400. Mr. Holton now pays $348 monthly rent for a four-bedroom, $85,500 government home that he "thought would be adequate to house our furniture."
* Financially strapped after his wife was laid off from LTV Aerospace & Defense Co., John Gambrell Jr. sold a home appraised at $49,126 and moved immediately into a $68,000 house designated for the homeless. His wife, Linda, has since regained her job, allowing them to keep their 1988 Camaro Z28 and late-model Ford Bronco.
* Last month, Keller businessman and part-time street ministerRoy Gray moved his family, cars and a houseful of furniture into a $92,500, government-owned home in the affluent Dallas suburb of Rowlett. He rents the home for $1 a year.
Mr. Gray and Mr. Robinson are key officials in a small circle of Dallas-Fort Worth churches and non-profit organizations linked with HUDto provide housing for the homeless. HUD officials are investigating whether the two violated federal conflict-of-interest rules by using their positions as church-affiliated HUD sponsors to lease government homes for themselves.
The homeless housing program was begun by HUD Secretary Jack F. Kemp, in one of his first major moves after taking office in February 1989. HUD addressed the plight of the nation's estimated 3 million homeless in March 1990 with a revamped housing aid program aimed at making up to 10 percent of the department's 50,000 foreclosed homes across the country available"for those who desperately need our assistance."
Church and non-profit group sponsors endorsed by HUD can lease unsold homes for $1 a year and then rent them to the homeless at modest fees -- normally about $250 a month -- to cover taxes and other operating costs.