Helping the homeless

AS the United States moves along through the fifth year of an economic expansion, it has become apparent that homelessness is not just a temporary symptom of recession. The homeless are not just going to ``go away.'' Although their numbers are the subject of contention, there are unquestionably enough of them to be a national disgrace. Their presence on the streets, under the bridges, on the margins of society, is a daily rebuke to Americans' sense of their country as a land of opportunity.

And so the passage by the US House last week of a $500 million package of aid to the homeless is a heartening indication that national attention is now being focused on the homeless and their needs.

This action, moreover, comes at a time when attention in Washington is shifting to domestic social issues - witness the passage of the drug bill last summer and the current discussions on insurance against catastrophic illness.

Of course the homeless-aid bill has some distance to go. And separate appropriation legislation would be necessary before the money is actually spent. Moreover, the House bill - sponsored by Reps. Mike Lowry (D) of Washington and Stewart McKinney (R) of Connecticut - has no Senate companion yet. Senate majority leader Robert Byrd, however, has instructed his committee chairmen to move expeditiously to put together a bill, and bipartisan legislation, expected soon, will be ``fast tracked'' once it is introduced, observers say.

The $500 million figure in the House bill derives more from its sponsors' sense of what is politically feasible at this time than from what the homeless actually need. The half billion would go to fiscal 1987 funding for some eight or nine programs; roughly half of the aid would go for immediate services (shelters, food, and health care) for the homeless.

An additional $100 million would be for more intermediate, ``transition'' services, and $125 million would go for permanent housing for the chronically mentally ill and for rent subsidies to homeless families. (The total amount authorized by the bill comes to $750 if aid authorized for spending through 1990 is counted.)

These two groups - the chronically mentally ill, and homeless families - are the particular targets of this House bill. These two groups were thus singled out because of their specific needs, and because they represent growing sectors of the homeless population. The fact of homeless mothers and children is especially jarring.

This is not to say that other groups of homeless do not have their needs - an article on the opposite page today discusses the needs of homeless veterans, for instance. But the sponsors of the House bill have had to choose their battles.

Still, it is heartening to see Congress work together in bipartisan fashion on an issue like this. There are even hopeful signs that the Lowry-McKinney bill may get some low-key support, or at least not a veto, from the administration. Politics, as Bismarck said, is the art of the possible. Surely the Reagan administration should welcome aid for the homeless as an issue it can ``get out front'' on; surely, too, a President who has so often spoken of his country as a land of opportunity will want to support measures to extend that opportunity to all citizens.

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