Decade of free Pentagon blankets for homeless ending Decision to halt donations is being felt on the street

December 20, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- Winter comes this year without one of its smaller mercies.

After a decade during which the U.S. Department of Defense distributed 4 million of its unlovely but warm blankets to homeless programs around the country, the money for any more is gone and the supply has run out. At hundreds of shelters, the loss is being felt.

"We're hurting," says Bob Ridgeway, executive director of the Providers' Resource Clearinghouse in Denver, where the blankets had become a winter staple. "We literally took them by the semi load out here."

In Fayetteville, N.C., Mary Hendrickson, executive director of the local Homeless Coalition, is also sorry to see the last of her Defense Department blankets. "We haven't had but a handful this year," she says. "The difference will be felt."

Since 1987, the blankets have been distributed free to more than 500 shelters nationwide through the Defense Department's Defense Logistics Agency, the agency says.

The program resulted from an act calling for unused government property to be distributed to the homeless, says Laurel Weir, policy director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, a legal advocacy organization based in Washington.

But in fiscal 1997, the Senate Armed Services Committee decided that supporting homeless shelters was "outside" the military's "primary mission." The congressional committee said that the cost of the blanket program diverted needed money from weaponry.

Enough blankets were left at the Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia to see many homeless programs through last winter, a spokesman there says.

This winter will be a different story.

"We drew down. It sounds like we've drawn out," says Frank Johnson, director of corporate communications at the defense center. Maybe priorities have changed. Still, on a very basic level, it seems a shame, he says. "I'm human. I see folks on the street. You say, 'Wow.' "

To homeless veterans and their advocates, the cutting of the Defense Department's blanket program is particularly sad. About one-third of the 760,000 people who are homeless in America on any night are said to be veterans.

"To say I am disappointed is an understatement," says Arthur Barham, executive director of Veterans Opportunity and Resource Center Inc. in Atlanta.

Says Ben Simon, "A blanket is warmth, security." He is a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam and is attending a recovery program at the Central Union Mission, a Washington shelter. To him, the fact that there are no more blankets can be taken only one way: "America doesn't care about us."

The shelter's director. David Treadwell, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, sees a blanket as a symbol of the intractable legacies of war and of all the things some veterans need to restore hope and meaning to their lives.

"The blanket is the tip of the iceberg," he says.

In the early years of the Defense Department's program, some shelters got wool blankets "stored since World War II in the salt mines in Kansas,'' recalls Ruth Schwartz, executive director of Shelter Partnership Inc. in Los Angeles.

After those were gone, they counted on blankets of a more recent vintage, of heavy gray felt. "You couldn't wash them," says Schwartz. Still, she adds, "they were essential."

She estimates that there are 84,000 homeless people on Los Angeles streets on any night.

In the past few years, the blankets were produced under contract with prison workshops.

Now that they are gone, Weir, of the center on homelessness and poverty, has been getting worried calls from shelters. "It really has served a need," she says. The program's $3.5 million annual cost was "such a small amount." When she thinks of the Pentagon's budget amounting to more than $700 million a day, she figures "it was a couple minutes' worth." Her organization has been looking for ways to get money from the Clinton administration to restore the program.

Pub Date: 12/20/98

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