The Veterans Administration often fails to inform financially strapped veterans of VA programs that could help them keep from losing their homes to foreclosure, according to a number of unemployed veterans and the organizations trying to help them.

Horace Small of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project told a Veterans Affairs subcommittee last week that these procedures, under which the VA can take over a mortgage and work out a reduced payment plan for the borrower, are "a well-kept secret."

He asserted that the VA is doing "nothing to assist homeowners who are facing foreclosure. . . . We were shocked to learn that when a homeowner in distress called the VA, the VA informed them there was nothing they could do."

His charges echoed complaints that have been surfacing in a number of areas across the country recently. An unemployed veteran from Aliquippa, Pa., told a House Banking subcommittee in February that he "called the VA and begged 'em. I said 'please do something for me. Get me a forebearance agreement so I can make partial payments until I'm back to work.' " He said he got sympathy, but no help. "If you don't make the payment, get out of the house. It's that simple."

In Pueblo, Colo., unemployed veterans had to picket the VA office twice and call Washington before getting any meaningful assistance, according to Carma Frazier of a self-help organization there called U.S. for Us. She said 3,000 of the 5,000 steelworkers in the area are laid off, and foreclosures are running 100 a month.

Her next-door neighbor "called the VA and they said they didn't know anything about" an assistance program.

In Gary, Ind., Leslie Adams said that, when he was laid off by U.S. Steel Corp., he called the VA and was told to call back in a couple of months and let them know how he was doing. When he did so, he said, officials asked him about the chances of his being re-employed--which are "prety good," he said--and whether he had any savings left. When he told them he had no savings, they advised him to sell his house, he said. "Nobody told me about no refunding program," he said.

Under the refunding program, the VA can pay off the lender for qualifying veterans and take over the note itself, working out with the veteran a manageable payment plan.

But veterans in many areas say the VA doesn't tell them about the program.

"This is a problem. There are problems out there," said Robert M. O'Toole, director of the VA's Loan Guaranty Service. But he said it is "not very often" that "someone doesn't get a chance to talk to us."

He emphasized that, "whenever these concerns are brought to our attention," the VA will try to help. He noted that officials met recently with a group in Philadelphia, "some 40 people--every one of those is still in their home."

O'Toole also noted that the VA has under consideration a plan under which "some attempt could be made" to keep a borrower in his house after foreclosure and perhaps work out some kind of repurchase agreement if there were a chance that the borrower could get back on his feet.

In addition, the Veterans Affairs subcommittee is considering a bill to provide money to assist unemployed veterans facing foreclosure. The measure would allow the VA to make payments totaling no more than $8,400 on behalf of an unemployed veteran homeowner who has a reasonable prospect of being able to repay both his mortgage lender and the VA.

The money would come from a VA revolving loan fund, rather than new budgetary authority.

O'Toole told the panel last week that the bill had been introduced so recently that his agency had not yet decided what position to take on it, but the measure is similar to several other foreclosure relief measures in Congress that the administration has strongly opposed.

And he noted in his testimony that the revolving fund has been drawn down severely in recent years.