Beacon for Homeless

PROGRAMS designed to help the homeless often have been as jerry-built as the cardboard shacks some homeless throw together for themselves. Now, a pilot project in Washington, D.C., holds the promise of a public policy consisting of more than additional soup kitchens and emergency shelters.

Henry Cisneros, secretary of housing and urban development, has announced the project for the capital, a locale disgracefully rich in sidewalk survivors. Rather than the usual short-term nonsolutions, the program will seek to offer the proverbial fishing pole instead of the fish, supplying the means for the homeless to help themselves.

Some 1,000 units of low-cost housing are on the drawing board, intended to change literally the dead-end identity: homeless. But just as important are the programs that aim to liberate substance-abusers and the mentally ill from the root causes of their homelessness. Furthermore, job-training will be provided, on the theory that productive work finally erases the stigma of homelessness and restores the exiles to the community.

Once the model has been established in Washington it will be replicated in other cities, not yet named.

Even sponsors concede that the D.C. Homeless Initiative, as it is called, will only be a demonstration project. A mere $20 million will be spent in two years on the experiment. No more than 1 out of 10 of the District's homeless can find places in the new housing units. As for the future programs in the unspecified cities, only $200 million will be allocated.

Apart from the obvious contrast between generous ambitions and tight budgets - a given in the frugal 1990s - critics of the plan have come up with other complaints: What good does job training do if there are no jobs at the other end? Isn't it naive to expect a lot of results from drug-detoxification programs, considering past recidivism rates?

Discounting the hopes of social programs has become a tired political art. But this project expresses a depth of concern that goes beyond the easy disparagements applied to spur-of-the-moment crisis-management. The Cisneros reform may be a token reform measured on the scale of homelessness in the '90s. But the initiative is just that - an innovative act combining imagination and compassion, deserving to be acknowledged as having the potential to be, in Cisneros's phrase, ``a beacon of light.''

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