Innovations For Helping Homeless

Beyond Beds

In snowy Denver, special trucks are poised 24 hours a day to whisk homeless people off the streets and into shelters. In El Nio-wary New Orleans, street missions are prepared to relax their rule for admittance - no drunks - in the event of pounding storms. Across California, church groups are providing temporary housing, tents, and sleeping bags.

As surely as winter brings cold and damp, the holiday season shines a spotlight on the national problem of homelessness - a condition that now appears to be widening after several years of containment. On any given night, experts say, there are now at least 60,000 more homeless people than in recent years - a 10 to 15 percent increase.

The rising need for shelter is testing the resources and creativity of communities nationwide - and many are rising to the challenge, homeless advocates say.

Some communities are spurred by expectations of stormier-than-usual weather, others by the realization that children and families are a growing segment of the homeless population. Among the innovations:

* In Dade County, Fla., voters created a trust to help cope with the problem. The Dade County Community Homeless Trust, whose board is staffed by local business, civic, and religious leaders, spends $19 million a year generated from a 1 percent sales tax on restaurants. This large-scale operation uses the money for emergency, transitional, and permanent housing, and as seed money for other grants and fund-raising operations that bring in another $68 million.

* In Seattle, a smaller-scale solution has had far-reaching consequences: Grass-roots activists have found space in local hotels for homeless people to bathe and use toilets, easing a problem made more difficult by new laws outlawing urination in public.

* In Massachusetts, a special program to house the homeless and those diagnosed as mentally ill has placed 800 people in five years. It has been championed since 1993 by state secretary of Administration and Finance Charles Baker. State appropriations of about $3 million annually are bringing new permanent housing as well.

In northern California, meanwhile, advocates recently won a battle with Gov. Pete Wilson (R) to keep National Guard Armories open for cold-weather months. In the southland, a gift- and food-giving initiative is in full force, urging office-goers to place items in downtown office bins.

Between 2 million and 3 million people are without shelter at least once over the year, advocates say. The current rise in the homeless population mirrors a boom in the 1980s, when a strong economy produced soaring rents and fewer housing vacancies.

This year, largely because of weather forecasts, crunch time has come sooner and will last longer.

"Our overflows are unprecedented," says Philip Magano, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, a coalition of 55 agencies. For 21 days of the past 30, the state has not had enough shelter beds for those who need them, he says, and the story is reflected across the US. "As the economy soars, the homeless are left behind and out in the cold," he says.

HOMELESSNESS remains an intractable problem year-round - 10 years after Congress confronted the issue and granted federal housing and homeless-service funding to cities via the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act. Partly because of historic welfare overhauls, which often come with concurrent losses of health benefits, more women, children, and families are on the streets this season than ever.

"Because of this 10th anniversary, Americans everywhere should be saying, 'we knew we could beat homelessness and we did,' " says Mary Ann Gleason, executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless in Washington. "But guess what? The situation is worse."

While activists laud the expanding array of programs to help the homeless, they hasten to say that permanent solutions will come only when cities and states address the root cause of homelessness: the inability to pay for housing. That, they say, includes addressing a shortage of affordable housing. The shortage has steadily worsened since the 1970s, when about half the nation's stock of single-room-occupancy hotels were destroyed.

The loss of other low-income housing under urban renewal, as well as cuts in federal housing programs, has meant that the number of low-income families in search of housing is double that of units available.

"The issue with homelessness in America is not whether we know what to do, or how," says Nan Roman of the National Alliance for the Homeless in Washington. "The question is whether or not we can bring these ideas to scale to end homelessness for everyone."

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