Helping the Homeless

Decade-old aid program has done much. Time to do more.

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the first major national aid program for homeless Americans. Signed into law in 1987, the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act was intended as an emergency response to a national crisis. It was to be followed by longer-term measures to prevent and eventually end homelessness.

Ten years later, it remains the only major response.

Homelessness continues to increase. Currently, on any given night, more than 700,000 men, women, and children are homeless. Over the course of a year, 2 million to 3 million Americans are homeless. Twenty-seven percent are children.

This year, the McKinney Act will provide more than $1 billion in federal aid to homeless Americans, including shelter, food, and health care. It will provide transportation to public schools for homeless children. It will convert vacant federal properties across the country into shelters, day-care centers, food banks, and job-training sites for homeless people.

For those it reaches, this aid is critical, even life-saving. But there is not enough aid to meet the need. Last year, the US Conference of Mayors reported that, on average, 20 percent of those requesting emergency shelter are turned away because of a lack of space.

As a result, growing numbers of people have no other option than to sleep - and simply to be - in public spaces. In the past 10 years, the sight of desperately poor, often ill, people struggling to survive on the streets of America has become commonplace. And now some cities and business groups are initiating harsh and ultimately futile efforts to sweep homeless people out of sight.

The problem can be solved

Real solutions demand affordable housing, job training and placement, and health care, including mental health care and substance-abuse treatment for those who need it. Where they are provided, they prevent and end homelessness. Ten years of federal aid establish this: Given adequate resources, the problem of homelessness can be solved.

But these solutions have not been forthcoming. Indeed, federal funding to support housing for the poor has been cut by almost 70 percent. Only one-third of poor persons eligible for and in need of housing assistance actually receive it. Health care for the poor is in short supply: Drug-treatment programs can serve fewer than 60 percent of those in need of treatment.

Increased resources require political commitment and will. Where the needs of the poor are concerned, these can be hard to come by. But the McKinney Act tells us that - while it is very difficult - this too can be done.

Political hurdles

In the mid-1980s, while homelessness was clearly a national crisis, the White House and Congress at first refused even to acknowledge homelessness as a national policy concern.

In 1985, as a young lawyer who had just moved to Washington to help organize the campaign for a federal response, I was told repeatedly that while a national response was a nice idea and the right thing to do, it was politically "unrealistic." There was no money, an election was coming up, and homeless people didn't vote.

But with public support, grass-roots pressure, and a sustained lobbying effort, legislation providing emergency relief was ultimately passed with broad bipartisan support.

After the death of Congressman McKinney, its chief Republican sponsor, the bill was renamed in his honor. With an official White House statement of reluctance, President Reagan signed the bill into law.

This week national organizations working on behalf of homeless people called on President Clinton to appoint a White House commission to focus renewed attention and commitment on solving this national crisis. We now appeal to our leaders in government to fulfill the promise of long-term solutions.

Homelessness can be solved: No American should have to live on the streets. It is time - way past time - to end the national shame that is homelessness in America.

* Maria Foscarinis, a primary architect of the McKinney Act, is founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, a not-for-profit organization.

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