The government's efforts to turn over surplus land to homelessness support groups for housing has lagged significantly since the passage of the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, with leases executed on 27 of more than 5,000 available parcels since 1987.

Representatives from the General Accounting Office, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the National Governors' Association and several other groups involved in addressing homelessness told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee yesterday that the federal effort is greater than it has been in the past, but has fallen short of goals set by law.

The most problematic recurring dispute over the McKinney Act has centered on the government's method for identifying surplus properties, declaring them suitable for the homeless and executing renewable 10-year leases.

Much of the property, witnesses testified, is inconveniently located or not truly vacant, according to the government agencies responsible for them. One military barracks in Massachusetts, for instance, was taken off the list when the base was identified as a potential Superfund site.

"There's a bottom line that's real simple," said Mark Talisman, director of the Council of Jewish Federations and a member of the National Emergency Food and Shelter Board. "They don't want to give away the property."

Government officials said the property allocation process had been hampered by the previous administration's slowness in notifying local groups of the availability of properties. Interagency Council for the Homeless Director Patricia Carlile told the committee the majority of the properties deemed suitable by the Department of Housing and Urban Development are located in remote areas.

Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman John Glenn (D-Ohio), who has suggested increasing the administration's budget request for the emergency food and shelter program from $125 million to $150 million, called homelessness a "festering sore on the social conscience of America" and questioned whether enough steps have been taken to aid the mentally ill homeless.

Others appearing before the committee said related problems are growing. In Ohio, one advocate testified, an ongoing study of the rural homeless indicate that twice as many exist as had been estimated.

"Some of Ohio's thousand points of light are growing dim and desperately need increased support," said Bill Faith, the director of the Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.

Many McKinney Act programs are up for reauthorization this year. The Bush administration has asked that they be renewed for only one year so that the programs within the departments of Health and Human Services and HUD and the General Services Administration can be better coordinated.