The Clinton administration yesterday announced a comprehensive national plan to combat homelessness, bringing $900 million in new money to a new strategy designed to cut the number of homeless Americans by one-third.
The report, compiled in response to a May 1993 executive order signed by President Clinton, marks the first time a U.S. president has ordered a cross-agency examination of homelessness and a comprehensive strategy to alleviate it.
"This is not a report destined to stand on some shelf," Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros said. "It is destined for action." Clinton, he added, "has put federal resources where his intentions are."
The 100-page plan, entitled "Priority: Home!" was developed during the past year by the Interagency Council on the Homeless, which brought together staff from 17 federal agencies. The plan blends shelter, medical treatment, education and training in a "new social contract" to "help individuals and families help themselves."
Cisneros cited "reasonable estimates" showing there are 600,000 homeless people in America at any given moment and as many as 7 million people who may have been homeless at some time in any five-year period.
"On our watch we'd like to reduce the number of homeless by a third; it is important to commit ourselves to numbers and timetables," he said.
Instead of dealing with the homeless on an "emergency" basis, the report suggests a streamlined approach in which local governments, together with shelters, churches and nonprofit organizations, can move homeless people through a "continuum of care" to a position of self-reliance or outpatient assistance.
The plan proposes a two-pronged strategy that would rely on $900 million in new money from HUD. Overall federal homeless assistance would rise to $2.15 billion for fiscal 1995, its highest level ever.
The policy would enhance medical treatment and housing opportunities for currently homeless people. To eradicate the long-term causes of homelessness, the plan appears to rely on Clinton administration antipoverty initiatives.
Joined by Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala and Veterans Affairs Secretary Jesse Brown, Cisneros released the report in a ceremony at Franklin Park, a frequent gathering place for the homeless.
Speakers yesterday belittled previous Republican administrations accused of underestimating homelessness or ignoring it. "The report should be received as a reality check that is long overdue," Brown said.
But coming 14 months into the Clinton administration, much that is in the report has been previously announced in a piecemeal fashion. Yesterday, Cisneros outlined HUD's efforts to consolidate programs under the 1987 Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, a proposal submitted to Congress several weeks ago. He expressed confidence that HUD would be able to more than double homeless assistance to $1.7 billion for fiscal 1995, an initiative first mentioned in budget discussions with Clinton at the beginning of the year.
Shalala reviewed "overall domestic policy," suggesting how health care reform, welfare reform, tax rebates for the working poor and other contemplated or already enacted legislation could help "prevent tragedies like homelessness."
The report says that "the crisis of homelessness is greater than commonly known or previously acknowledged," but Cisneros's estimate of 600,000 homeless comes from a seven-year-old Urban Institute study, while the 7 million figure is based on Columbia University research conducted in 1990.
Still, homeless advocates gave the administration a pleased, if qualified, pat on the back: "It's a good list of the issues," said Maria Foscarinas, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. "It identifies the needs for housing, health care and mental health and substance abuse treatment."
The report divides the homeless population into two large groups: those living in "crisis poverty" where homelessness is a "transient or episodic disruption in lives that are routinely marked by hardship"; and those with "chronic disabilities," in which "homelessness can appear to be a way of life."
It reviews homeless research to develop profiles: single men account for 75 percent of the homeless population; half the homeless have had alcohol or drug abuse problems; one-third of homeless children do not attend school; 30 to 45 percent of the male homeless population are veterans.
It stresses solutions that are comprehensive and coordinated among different federal agencies. "None of this will be easy," the report concludes. "But given the alternative -- a deepening morass of half measures and hesitancy -- it is both possible and necessary."