Standing up for those in need

Homeless program : As 2002 federal budget decisions near, Maryland senator plays key role.

October 22, 2001

WASHINGTON is consumed these days with worry over the war against terrorism abroad and the threat of anthrax attacks at home.

But there's other important business under the Capitol dome for Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski.

As chair of the Senate VA/HUD Appropriations subcommittee, she is preparing to lead the fight to preserve funding for Shelter Care Plus, a homeless program that has paid big dividends in Baltimore and other American cities.

In early September -- before terrorism diverted our attention -- we wrote about Shelter Plus Care, its successes and its struggle to keep the money flowing.

The program's virtues are worth repeating, as Senate and House committees prepare to come together to hash out 2002 federal budgeting decisions.

Shelter Plus Care is different from most homeless programs in that it doesn't merely provide temporary shelter. It helps homeless people with physical and mental disabilities or drug problems get off the streets for good and into subsidized, self-selected housing. It also provides them with the support services they need to care for their disabilities or addictions, and to get jobs.

Since it started in the early 1990s, some 500 Baltimoreans have benefitted. And the program has helped at least three move to total self-sufficiency. (Yes, a government program transformed homeless people who consume resources into homeowning taxpayers.)

The program could expand and flourish if its funding weren't constantly in question. Right now, though, it will need Ms. Mikulski's full backing to avoid a crushing setback.

Staffers in Ms. Mikulski's office say she's prepared to fight for Shelter Plus Care when the conference committee begins work in the next few weeks. They say it's a priority for her -- one that she will not easily be dissuaded from pursuing.

Good. The futures -- and homes -- of all Shelter Plus Care participants depend upon Ms. Mikulski's commitment to this issue. Even though the Senate VA/HUD subcommittee (and the White House) included about $100 million for Shelter Plus Care in its 2002 budget request, a House subcommittee left the funding out.

If the money is not restored in a conference committee between the House and Senate, the program and those who benefit from it will be in deep trouble.

Staffers for Rep. James T. Walsh, a New York Republican who chairs the House subcommittee, say they left the money out of their budget because they thought the program got two years' worth of funding last year.

But that's not right. What they're overlooking is the fact that some of last year's funding had to be allocated to cover a funding shortfall from the prevoius year. Moreover, it takes the government more than a year to disburse money to programs after Congress approves it. So the money they're approving now won't get to Shelter Plus Care until 2003 anyway.

No money for Shelter Plus Care in the 2002 budget could put people out of homes and back onto the streets in 2003.

That would be an unsconscionable snub and an affront to the whole idea of American opportunity, generosity and good faith -- values whose importance we've all recognized in the past month.

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