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Cisneros Sums Up
Departing Housing Secretary Expresses Frustration Over Homelessness Amid Plenty

By Bill McAllister
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 8, 1997; Page A23

Riding toward his office Monday night, Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros spotted a homeless man whom he's seen for four years sleeping on a grate under a bridge near the Department of Housing and Urban Development on 7th Street SW.

"I am ashamed of what I saw last night. I came from the White House at dusk last evening and one block from HUD . . . I saw a man who's sleeping on a grate," Cisneros told a National Press Club audience yesterday. "He is there every single day, every single night."

To Cisneros, the former mayor of San Antonio who came to Washington flush with enthusiasm to help the nation's cities, the homeless man symbolized the frustrations of his four years at the helm of HUD, a department that was badly demoralized by scandal during the Reagan administration.

Yesterday Cisneros confronted the man who had already bedded down for the night. He told the secretary to leave him alone. "Basically he told me to mind my own business," the secretary said. ". . . He looked very agitated and sick."

Taking care of the nation's homeless, Cisneros said, ought to be the top priority for "an agency that has housing as its first name." But in what was billed as his last major Washington address as HUD secretary, Cisneros had to concede he did not know whether more or fewer people were living on the streets than when he took office in 1993.

"Have we reduced the numbers?" Cisneros asked, referring to homeless programs that he and Andrew M. Cuomo, the HUD assistant secretary who will succeed him, have started. "It's like bailing out a boat with a big leak in it. As fast as you bail, you know the water comes pouring back."

Nationally, Cisneros put the number of homeless at 600,000 and expressed frustration that "the richest country in the world" might be willing to accept homelessness as an inevitable part of urban life.

Cisneros told his audience that he had no idea why the Washington man had refused to participate in the homeless programs his department administers. "There is no solution except to confront" the nation's homeless on a one-to-one basis, Cisneros said, adding that he might confront the man again before he leaves the Cabinet for a job he hopes will pay more than his $148,400 HUD salary. He has said he needs the money to pay legal bills and the college costs for two daughters.

To the secretary's aides, Cisneros's confrontation with the homeless man typifies his preference to face issues one at a time. "The truth is, after all the comprehensive solutions and sweep ideas, I've learned that the way to solve the biggest problem is block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city," he said yesterday.

Cisneros defended his controversial decision to tear down 23,000 units of massive high-rise public housing, describing the projects as "the settings for our children's urban nightmares." Despite complaints by critics over the loss of housing units, Cisneros said no one has convinced him of "any logic to allow our children to live in these worst conditions . . . one day more."

While Cisneros seemed proud of his efforts to mold HUD into a viable bureaucracy, he also conceded that life in Washington has had its setbacks. "This is not a job you take because you see the silver lining at the end of the day," he said. "You just have to hit it every day."

His "most important day," he said in response to a question, came in March 1995 when Attorney General Janet Reno announced she was naming a special prosecutor to investigate questions of whether he had misled FBI agents about payments he made to his former mistress. That investigation -- one of three inquiries of Clinton Cabinet members -- is continuing.

At the time, Cisneros said, he toyed with quitting but dropped the idea when his senior staff told him "it is not a close call, you have to stay and fight."

The decision to stay taught him how to "compartmentalize" problems and concentrate on the bigger issues facing his department. "In the end," he said, "I believe I'm a better and a changed person for having made that fight."

As for HUD's future and that of the nation's cities, Cisneros was upbeat. He said he was excited over the new initiatives he expects the Clinton administration to test in the District, especially transportation programs to link urban residents to suburban jobs, efforts to boost middle-class housing in inner cities and high-tech training programs.

While Cisneros spoke glowingly of the rebirth of many large cities, he said it was unlikely that many older cities would regain their previous size: "I'm not saying that Detroit is going to be 2 million people again."

But a revitalized Detroit metropolitan area that includes the city and its suburbs will be "a study in prosperity," he said. "It may not be the Detroit of legend and lore . . . but it will be a very livable city."

He said the same of Washington, describing the metropolitan "Baltimore-Washington economy" as far stronger than the District's. And he expressed doubt that the many jobs being created in the Washington suburbs can be brought to the central city.

A major challenge to cities will be the loss of welfare payments, he said. "We don't know what [welfare reform] will mean in economic terms, we don't know what it will mean in psychological terms," he said.

He also expressed hope that HUD's 1998 budget would emerge basically intact despite fears he expressed in a memorandum that some officials in the Office of Management and Budget might take advantage of his pending departure to cut the agency's funds more sharply. "I wasn't asking for special treatment," he quipped. "I just didn't want special negative treatment because I was leaving office."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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