Really helping the homeless

May 23, 1994

The Clinton administration's doubling of funds to combat homelessness is an admirable example of putting its money where its mouth is. Admirable not just because the projected $1.7 billion is twice as much as this year's appropriation or triple the amount spent by the previous administration. The program announced by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros appears not to be another instance of throwing more money at a social problem in hope it would then go away.

The program recognizes that what is termed homelessness is actually a complex of social, physical and mental disabilities, of which the lack of permanent shelter can be a symptom.

For some time, specialists working with the homeless have recognized that the old-fashioned charity approach: "three hots and a cot," or three nourishing meals and a clean place to sleep, often combined with religious proselytizing, doesn't suffice. Different factors -- often in combination -- drive people onto the streets. And they're not the same for men and for the growing number of women and children without a regular home. By combining the efforts of 17 federal agencies, including elements of the Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs departments, the new program attacks homelessness at all of its roots.

Even so, Mr. Cisneros has not been able to avoid playing the bureaucratic numbers game. He estimates that on any given night some 600,000 people are homeless in this country, and that over a five-year period perhaps 7 million went without shelter for some time. In fact, the number of nightly homeless could well be half that, or half again as many. No one really knows. Setting fixed targets may be the bureaucrat's equivalent of a security blanket, but they can also become traps, as some homeless advocates have discovered.

Just as difficult is measuring success, so necessary to justifying government programs. Given the variety and severity of ills that drive people to the streets, the batting average is never going to be very high. Nor will it be easy to calculate precisely, since the benchmark will vary from case to case. Nevertheless, it's clear a substantial number of people live on the streets. An intelligently managed, adequately financed program to help the homeless overcome their problems is welcome, as long as it is not suffocated by ham-handed bureaucracy or drowned in political blather.

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