NEW YORK — The nation's homeless face a new problem: They're starting to get the bum's rush from federal, state, and city governments.
Across the country, budgets to feed and house the destitute are shrinking at a time when advocates believe the ranks of the homeless are rising.
This winter, activists say, could be particularly hard because of changes in several federal programs affecting the poor. Already, actual or anticipated cutbacks are being felt on the streets of urban America. For instance:
*In Philadelphia, after receiving less state money, Mayor Edward Rendell recently decided to cap the city's shelter population to save money for colder weather.
*Minnesota's Hennepin County, which encompasses Minneapolis, has decided to provide able-bodied single adults with a warm "waiting space" instead of a night in a shelter with showers or hot meals. Two hundred people a night now camp out in the waiting room.
*In Baltimore, the ranks of the homeless swelled after the legislature ended state welfare, called general assistance, says Jeff Singer, director of community relations for Health Care for the Homeless. Mr. Singer says Baltimore has tried to drive the homeless out of the central business district by anti-begging laws and private security guards who look like police.
"It's the worst time it has ever been for people who are homeless, despite the fact we have tried to create transitional housing and homeless shelters," says Mary Ann Gleason, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington.
Several forces are converging that worry activists. One is federal changes that will eliminate many people from the food-stamp program. In addition, on Jan. l, as part of changes enacted in the debt-ceiling legislation, anywhere from 40,000 to 200,000 people on disability with substance-abuse problems could be cut off from Supplemental Security Income. Most people getting SSI, part of Social Security, use the money to pay for housing.
Worried about the effect of new welfare reforms on the poor, President Clinton last week proposed spending $3.5 billion on jobs for welfare recipients. Under the new welfare law, employable people must move into workfare jobs or lose benefits. But there is concern that many people on assistance will not find jobs and become homeless. "Clinton is just trying to pacify those of us who are critical of him for signing the welfare-reform bill," Ms. Gleason says.
The President's proposal comes against a backdrop of falling expenditures on homeless programs. Two years ago, Congress sliced funding for almost every major homeless program. In the new fiscal year, starting Oct. 1, funding will be either kept at the same level or reduced further. Some programs, such as training for the homeless and help for the homeless mentally ill, have been zeroed out. Only health-care funding has been increased - in part to relieve the burden on hospital budgets.
As part of the welfare-reform bill, many states are removing legal immigrants from their welfare rolls. The federal cuts are quickly rippling down to the states, which normally match federal grants. "The federal cuts will reduce incentives for states so the effect is larger than the cuts themselves," says Jack Tweedie, a welfare specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. This year, although many states will receive large flexible block grants under the welfare-reform bill, Mr. Tweedie says he knows of no state that is shifting the money into homeless programs.
The impact of the cuts is significant. "The only way to get by in the winter is to cut off now," said Mayor Rendell (D) in a recent interview, explaining his decision to cap Philadelphia's shelter populations. Although the city has since started to find space for homeless families, advocates say many single adult men are still sleeping across from City Hall at Love Park.
In Minneapolis, advocates estimate the new federal cuts will mean that on Jan. 1, 1,319 legal immigrants will be off welfare, 2,312 people will be lopped off food stamps, and 2,632 people will lose Medicaid coverage.
"The county is determined not to serve single people who are not disabled," says Sue Watlov Phillips, director of the ELIM Transitional Housing in Minneapolis, of the county's new "waiting room" policy.
California counties are now trying to decide whether to implement state legislation giving them the option of limiting eligibility for general assistance, called GR. For people who are employable, counties can now limit aid to three non-consecutive months out of 12. The counties can also reduce their $212-per-month payment. "They want to lower their GR rolls to make room for people who are going to fall out of the federal welfare reform," says Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Los Angeles Coalition to End Homelessness. He estimates that 20,000 to 40,000 people could be added to Los Angeles's current street population of 50,000 to 80,000 people per night.
No panhandling here
Even as the money dries up, many communities are enacting laws that crack down on the homeless. Stockton, Calif., for instance, recently made it illegal to sleep in a nonworking automobile parked on the streets. In normally tolerant Cambridge, Mass., the city council has directed police to enforce noise and littering laws that could prevent people from rummaging through trash and recycling bins.
New York City is considering legislation to prohibit "aggressive" panhandling near automated teller machines. In addition, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R) is now embroiled in a battle with a state court justice over the city's attempt to try to make people arriving at an emergency housing office sign up for workfare. The mayor contends many of the people who show up looking for shelter each night are merely trying to get into public housing.
"It's crazy and cruel to require the very small number of women in emergency assistance units to go overnight into workfare," says Mark Green, the city Advocate. But the mayor's press secretary, Colleen Roche, counters: "One of the basic tenants is to move people from homelessness to independent living. How better to move people where they have responsibilities."
Under the state constitution, the city must provide shelter for any New Yorker who asks for it. As a result, it has the nation's largest shelter system, housing some 18,000 per night.