Hope for the Homeless

June 02, 1994

The Clinton administration's attack on homelessness contains a truly radical idea: Let the people closest to the problem have more flexibility to deal with it. Formulas devised in Washington don't equally suit the needs of all communities. So let local governments and private agencies that provide shelter and long-term care propose programs that are tailored to the conditions that plague their own homeless. Washington can approve or disapprove, but it wouldn't design rigid approaches.

Combined with a drastic proposed increase in federal spending and a structure to get all Washington agencies pulling together, the strategy proposed by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros has a lot of promise -- on paper. It will get close scrutiny when formally considered by Congress, some of it from knowledgeable social workers and some of it from bureaucrats and legislators whose turf needs protecting.

The Cisneros strategy goes beyond the traditional way of dealing with the homeless. Shelter for the night and a hot meal or two isn't even a palliative. Homelessness is usually a symptom of other problems. Different factors drive men, women and children onto the streets, and the mix is not the same for all of them. Shelter is just the first step in what should be a program of treatment for a complex of social, physical and mental disabilities.

By merging a number of federal programs -- run by 17 agencies -- the HUD proposal promises a broad attack on homelessness. Rather than rely on traditional grants, which local agencies could apply for, the plan requires the local groups to devise their own programs tailored to local conditions. At least half of the funds would be allocated directly to private nonprofit organizations.

The HUD proposal shows that homelessness is not exclusively a city problem, either. While Baltimore's allocation would triple to $14.7 million, so would Baltimore County's (to $2.5 million) and Anne Arundel's (to $1.3 million).

For the HUD approach to work, Congress must come up with the money and agree to transfer some power to the hinterland. Federal agencies must pull together. Bureaucrats and interest groups whose clout will be diminished must be mollified. Only then will this country be able to attack homelessness as the symptom it really is.

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