Self-Help Urged for Homeless

Clinton's `social contract' promises improved facilities in exchange for counseling

BY the end of the month, federal and local officials plan to open two new 24-hour drop-in centers with showers, lockers, free laundry machines, and coffee in downtown Washington neighborhoods.

The centers are intended as recruiting posts to draw the ``treatment resistant'' homeless into social services. This is the first step in a plan that Clinton administration officials hope may become a new national approach to homelessness - an approach that requires the homeless to actively participate in efforts to bring more stability to their lives.

The government is proposing a social contract: revamped services and facilities in exchange for an agreement to participate in job counseling, mental health, or rehabilitation programs necessary to address the root causes of their homelessness.

The District of Columbia is serving as the testing ground for the pilot program. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the government agency that oversees most federal homeless programs, has pledged $20 million to the program over the next three years.

``We're saying that we'll do a better job of addressing your needs, but you'll be expected to respond to that. If you don't participate in your own development, the social contract says, `We're very sorry, but we have to move on to someone else,' '' says Vincent Gray, director of the District's Department of Health and Human Services and chairman of the city's Interagency Homeless Coordinating Council.

The prevalence of homeless who remain outside the system despite available services hit home last week when a woman died on a bench across the street from HUD headquarters. Yetta Adams, coping with mental illness and alcoholism, had repeatedly spurned the services of social workers, doctors, and shelters.

This incident helped spur HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros to advance the city several hundred thousand dollars from the $20 million fund for aggressive outreach to get the homeless out of the cold this winter. HUD had planned not to distribute the money until the District created a new agency to oversee the initiative.

The new strategy marks a recognition that past emergency approaches ``have not worked, cannot be reformed, are inherently flawed, and must be replaced,'' according to an outline published jointly by HUD and the District government. Federal spending for the homeless has increased from $400 million in 1988 to more than $1 billion in 1992 and 1993, but it has been largely ineffective, Mr. Gray says.

The government is enlisting the help of nonprofit organizations and even District police for the new program. Community police will be trained with the nonprofits and help to encourage the homeless to check in to assessment centers, where case workers can pinpoint unmet needs that may be keeping homeless from locating and remaining in housing.

Initiative organizers estimate that three-quarters of homeless single adults and 20 percent of homeless families have ``special needs'' and could benefit from mental-health treatment and counseling. The remaining, with short-term needs, will have greater access to job training and increased opportunities for affordable housing. The initiative also includes provisions for a computer network to identify families at risk of being evicted.

Gray says treatment is the first step in breaking the cycle of poverty. ``I just don't think there are simplistic answers to what causes homelessness. But I know there is no point in getting a job for a person who is actively smoking crack....'' He notes that the effects of poverty may trigger addiction and push the poor from a precarious housing situation into homelessness.

The United States is not the only country confronting homelessness. Other wealthy countries are also alarmed at their growing numbers of homeless, says Sheila Kamerman, a professor at Columbia University's School of Social Work.

In France, the most recent 1990 government study counted 200,000 homeless, with nearly half of that population with no known place to stay, another 45,000 precariously housed, and 59,000 in temporary emergency shelter. Estimates of the number of homeless people in the US range from 600,000 to 3 million, says Secretary Cisneros.

For Britain, the number of homeless in London alone was estimated at 45,000 last year, and a government report expected that number to rise to 75,000 by 1995. The Community for Creative Non-Violence puts the number of homeless in D.C. at 15,000.

Responses to these growing numbers range from the emergency-shelter approach to the public-private cooperation increasingly common in new models of action in the US.

``We had very few homeless until recently, so there are few specific programs,'' says Pascal Chevit, counselor for Social Affairs at the French Embassy. The French have dramatically increased the number of emergency shelters, he says. Railway stations that are normally closed between 1 and 5 a.m., for example, have been opened to allow the homeless a warm place to stay. The French government also lauched a major initiative last month to increase the number of low-income housing units available.

The ``Rough Sleepers Initiative'' (RSI) is a British effort to decrease the number of people sleeping in the streets of central London. Since it was launched in 1990, the number of ``rough sleepers'' has fallen from estimates of more than 1,000 to around 420 counted last November. Washington, D.C. estimates its number of street-sleepers at 1,500. The British approach resembles the D.C. Initiative's ``Public-Private Entity,'' the body that will be created to oversee funds and hire non-profits to provide outreach services, treatment, and housing support.

Irwin Garfinkel, professor at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, is wary of the assumption that the private sector will automatically do things better. ``The argument is that the public sector is very inefficient and all you have to do is to turn it over to the nonprofits,'' he says. Homelessness is rooted in unemployment, he adds, and until the numbers of unemployed drop, homelessness will ``continue.''

Martha Burt, director of the Social Services Research Program at the Urban Institute in Washington, is wary of the initiative's social-contract policy that ``abandons'' those who prove resistant to treatment. She believes it is idealistic to think ``that we'll see what's wrong with you and you'll fix it.''

Dr. Burt notes that surveys of homeless populations often exaggerate the number of long-term shelter inhabitants, which tend to be highly disabled and mentally ill.

For a much larger percentage of the homeless population, Burt says, ``you can't come up with any other [explanation] except their inability to earn a living.''

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