Counting them in

February 07, 2005

WHEN VOLUNTEERS fanned out across Baltimore a week ago Sunday to count the city's homeless, the task seemed forbidding, given the biting cold and snow. And the urgency grew as sunlight gave way to nightfall and precious visibility was lost.

But counting those living in the shadows on the streets and determining how they got there is the only way to measure the extent of the problem - and even that method can't help but miss people.

The city counted 2,600 in 2003, though social workers and homeless advocates believe the number was much higher and may now stand between 3,000 and 4,000. Statewide, 50,000 people are said to experience homelessness annually. Nationally, some 3.5 million people are believed to be homeless.

The exact number is impossible to pin down, but it's clear that the ranks of the homeless are growing, as the wages of working poor people have fallen behind rising housing costs, and government aid has remained stagnant or declined.

Yet the new budget President Bush is scheduled to unveil today isn't expected to help much. Anti-poverty and entitlement programs are likely to be on the chopping block as the president tries to cut the federal deficit. And while those cuts are likely to produce howling all around, Congress must take care not to put the greatest burden of these cuts on the most vulnerable among us.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is spending $1.4 billion this year - $36.6 million in Maryland, with $15.8 million of it earmarked for Baltimore - for much-needed programs to help homeless individuals and families. Homeless advocates say too much of the money goes to "warehousing" homeless people in shelters instead of placing them in more permanent housing.

HUD officials say spending priorities have shifted in the last four years from social service to housing programs. Still, $9 million in homeless assistance grants was cut from HUD's overall budget, which does not address the acute shortage of affordable housing in Baltimore and nationwide. Another $140 million was cut from a federal home investment partnership program.

The budget is stretched too thin to accommodate all the people who wound up on the streets when their wages could not keep up with the cost of living, when illness and lack of health insurance cost them their jobs, and when they could no longer afford soaring rents or find landlords willing to accept government housing subsidy vouchers.

One congressional proposal introduced last year calls for establishing a federal rent relief fund, among other steps, and increasing federal Section 8 housing assistance vouchers to an additional 1.5 million low-income families over the next decade. Two million families currently get the vouchers at a cost of $14.8 billion, almost half of HUD's entire budget.

The bill got nowhere, but its sponsors, Democratic Reps. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan and Julia Carson of Indiana, plan to reintroduce it later this month. Even though housing programs don't seem to be at the top of the White House's or the Republican-led Congress' agenda, expanding rental assistance and helping the growing numbers of those who need it to keep their homes doesn't seem like too much to ask.

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