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Homelessness Dej` Vu

Saturday, January 29, 2005; Page A24

"The federal-District exercise . . . is supposed to get the city away from focusing on emergency shelters . . . "

-- an Aug. 26, 1993, Post editorial on the "D.C. Initiative"

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"This plan moves the District away from its reliance on emergency shelters."

-- the "Homeless No More" plan released Jan. 28, 2005

PERHAPS THE MOST important thing we can say about the mayor's just-announced plan to end homelessness in the District by 2014 is that at least the problem is still on the city's agenda. Just where it stands, however, is hard to say, as the promise to end homelessness in the nation's capital originated 12 years ago. As the quotes above suggest, it takes a while for some ideas -- such as the need get away from an emergency shelter focus -- to sink in. This latest homeless initiative, as with the first, is long on ambition and promises. The intervening years of experience with D.C. homeless programs, however, are hardly a basis for optimism.

That said, there is a qualitative difference between the 1993 D.C. Initiative and the plan Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) unveiled yesterday. The '93 plan was a brainchild of the Clinton administration that was foisted upon the District as a federal test case. It was supposed to serve as a model for the Department of Housing and Urban Development's relationship with other cities confronting homeless problems. The feds' $20 million plan came with a twist, however. The District, in the midst of a fiscal crisis, had to pony up some of its own funds to get the HUD money, which in turn ended up being spent by non-D.C. government officials.

As with other past federal programs that also sought to use the city as a laboratory, the '93 D.C. Initiative promised far more than it delivered. By one estimate, last year nearly 6,100 people were on D.C. streets, in shelters or in transition facilities. That's not counting another 2,150 permanently supported people in community-based housing. Twelve years after the D.C. Initiative, the D.C. Housing Authority has a waiting list of 16,000 households for the Housing Choice Voucher Program.

Whether the problem will be better or worse 10 years from now is difficult to gauge. The mayor's plan, based on hearings, meetings and drafting sessions that spanned more than a year, still plows some of the old ground in pursuit of some old goals. The plan pledges more on-site, clinical, case management and job-support services to help the homeless become self-sufficient; less emphasis on emergency shelters; more support for transitional, community-based housing; and emphasis on producing a system that treats the whole range of problems homeless people confront. With the exception of the new promise to develop or subsidize 6,000 units of affordable housing, the plan's essentials are much the same as the blueprint unveiled during the Bill Clinton-Sharon Pratt Kelly administrations.

The possible difference is that this is a homegrown undertaking rather than a federally imposed "pilot program." As with all such projects however, the devil is in the details and -- in the city's case -- the implementation.

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