Give them the money

July 25, 2002

FEDERAL PROGRAM. Homelessness. Funding.

Maybe those words aren't the most exciting way to begin an editorial that hopes to inspire -- but they're the best place to start talking about Shelter Plus Care.

Yes, it is a federal program. Yes, it's for the homeless -- specifically, those with serious disabilities. And yes, the program's advocates are again biting their nails, awaiting word on whether Congress will include their funding renewals in next year's budget.

But no -- Shelter Plus Care is not a typical federal program or some giveaway that boasts little return for the money it spends. It represents one of the most innovative and successful long-term solutions to homelessness. In a little more than a decade, it has moved 15,000 disabled homeless people (including more than 500 Baltimoreans) from the streets to permanent housing.

That alone should inspire the Senate Appropriations Committee, which will take up Shelter Plus Care's funding today, to put back $193 million the Bush administration withheld from the program in its proposed budget. Even though money's tight in Washington, cutting this program is a foolish and cruel -- way to save cash.

Shelter Plus Care works this way: It first gives the disabled homeless a place to stay and treatment for their illnesses, which many times are contributors to their vagrancy. Then it helps them land jobs and moves them into permanent housing.

The goal is self-sufficiency, and some participants have eventually become homeowners. But even among those who haven't attained total independence, more than 70 percent have stuck with the program and stayed off the streets, where caring for their needs ultimately costs a lot more.

Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee for Housing and Urban Development, fought last year to restore a $100 million cut to Shelter Plus Care funding that was being championed by Senate Republicans.

This year, her committee is expected to take the same course and restore the $193 million the Bush administration seeks to slice away. That's what ought to happen.

Further, Congress should consider ways to make funding for Shelter Plus Care more assured.

Every year, the program's advocates and administrators have to remake the case for their work and wait nervously for lawmakers to approve the money. That makes it difficult to plan for the program's future -- and imposes needless uncertainty on the program's participants.

If funding for Shelter Plus Care were folded into other HUD programs (one proposal would fund it like Section 8 housing, which is almost never in jeopardy), the program's yearly fears could be calmed -- and more attention could be paid to fine-tuning or even expanding Shelter Plus Care.

In the long run, that's the best course for everyone.

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