A program that works faces uncertain future

Funding: Congress must reauthorize money that aids disabled homeless people.

September 04, 2001

SHE SAYS HERS is the yellow house with the green shutters. The one on her Northeast Baltimore block with the deck out front and the basketball goal near the drive.

If you press Debbie Simpson, she'll use a house number to describe where she lives. But it's not a telling detail to her.

What matters are the particulars, the things she couldn't imagine when she was crack-addicted and living "pillar to post" in West Baltimore.

"Home," says the 36-year-old Simpson, sitting in her living room. On her couch. Watching her television. "This is the first place outside my mother's home that I call home."

If not for a federal program designed to get disabled homeless people off the streets and into permanent, self-selected housing, Ms. Simpson wouldn't have this home. She might not have any.

And if Congress doesn't ensure renewed funding of the program - called Shelter Plus Care - when it reconvenes this week, Ms. Simpson and hundreds of other Baltimoreans may be forced back into the dreadful lives they left behind.

This is a story about what happens when a tight economy and a huge tax cut force penny-pinching reductions in important domestic programs. It's a story about the little decisions in Washington that can have such a huge impact on the streets of cities like Baltimore.

In total, we're talking about $100 million that Congress needs to re-authorize - a pittance in the context of the gargantuan federal budget. But if a subcommittee led by Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski doesn't fight to reverse a House subcommittee's decision to leave the money out of the 2002 federal budget, the program could disappear.

We need Ms. Mikulski, who has been a tireless supporter of homeless issues, to insist that Congress do the right thing. The money for the program has to find its way into the final budget.

The funny thing about this issue is this: No one seems to disagree with the premise of Shelter Plus Care, or have serious criticisms of its outcomes. There's no dark-hooded villain in this story, no crusty conservative prattling on about wasteful social programs.

The program, which is part of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, is about solving, rather than merely temporarily staying, homelessness among the disabled.

It takes mentally ill, physically handicapped and even drug-addicted homeless people off the street and puts them into houses rather than shelters. Participants get treatment for their disabilities. More importantly, they get a place to rebuild their lives.

Self-sufficiency is the underlying goal. Three of the more than 500 Baltimoreans who have participated since the program started have gone on to buy their own homes.

President Bush included funding for the program (through a grant in the Department of Housing and Urban Development) in his budget. So did the Senate Subcommittee on VA, HUD and Independent Agencies, which Ms. Mikulski chairs.

And even staffers for the chair of the House subcommittee that left funding out of its proposed budget say they're smitten with Shelter Plus Care.

So what's the problem? Money, plain and simple.

The incredible shrinking federal surplus and President Bush's mammoth tax cut have left members of Congress scrambling for ways to balance the budget.

Ron Anderson, a staffer for Rep. Jim Walsh, R-N.Y., who chairs the House VA/HUD subcommittee, says committee members believe Congress funded Shelter Plus Care for two years last year; they shouldn't have to allocate more money this year. And the subcommittee was looking for places to cut.

But homeless advocates point out that part of last year's authorization had to be used to cover a previous gap in funding, so there isn't enough for next year. Moreover, they point out, any disruption in funding stream dashes any effective planning they can do - essentially forcing people whose homes are dependent on the money to hang in the balance.

House-Senate conference committees will discuss the various budget proposals soon after Congress returns this week. As they're debating the financial commitment, members of Congress would do well to remember what their decision will mean to Baltimoreans like Ms. Simpson.

Seven years ago, her life was a mess. A drinking habit she developed at age 9 had progressed to marijuana, then cocaine and finally crack.

She was moving from one flophouse to another, getting over on whatever landlord would rent to her. She'd lost custody of her children.

She said even then, she knew she wanted more, but she needed help. She says she used to ride the city buses and stare at the people who were dressed like they were coming and going from work.

"I wanted to be them," she says. "I wanted their lives so badly."

One day, she stood outside a Burger King near the Park Heights section of West Baltimore, pondering two choices.

She could hurl a garbage can through the restaurant's window, get arrested and beg to go to a treatment center instead of jail.

Or she could OD.

She chose the latter, and wound up in the emergency room.

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