WASHINGTON — House Democratic leaders, citing a national emergency for the homeless caused by an unusually harsh winter, won quick approval Tuesday for legislation providing an extra $50 million to build shelters and feed displaced people in cities across the nation.
The bill, which was approved 296 to 79, now goes to the Senate, where Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) predicted swift passage. However, sponsors may be on a collision course with the White House, which has opposed the proposal as too expensive.
Although the vote was strongly bipartisan, Democrats were quick to portray it as an example of their new determination to "set the nation's legislative agenda," according to Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), the House's third-ranking Democrat.
Coelho, calling it a coincidence that the Democrats had pushed action on the new homeless initiative hours before President Reagan was to deliver his annual State of the Union address, added: "We're not trying to preempt him . . . . This is our issue."
Cite Hypothermia Deaths
Several congressmen, noting that several homeless people recently have died of hypothermia on the streets of Los Angeles, said that the $50-million allocation was of particular importance to California.
Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles), noting that his state has the nation's largest number of homeless people, said that community organizations trying to aid the homeless in Los Angeles and other communities have been doing a good job but simply have run out of money.
"Mother Nature recently dealt Los Angeles a hard blow, with some of the coldest winter weather in years, and we had those tragedies," he said. "This $50-million allocation is not nearly enough to meet all the needs of the homeless, but it's a start."
Dixon added that the bill would not create a new layer of bureaucracy but merely would give extra money to existing programs. Meanwhile, Congress will begin work on legislation providing long-term assistance to the homeless, he said.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) said that the legislation could provide urgently needed funds within a matter of weeks, if Reagan signs it. But, if there is opposition, he added, "we could be looking at an even bigger tragedy than we already have . . . . We might have more of the homeless dying."
Disaster Relief Funds
Under the proposed bill, $50 million would be added to the $70 million already allocated this year to the Emergency Food and Shelter Program. The new funds would be taken from the federal government's disaster relief program, which provides low cost loans and other assistance to victims of natural disasters. The money would be made available to groups that distribute aid to the homeless, including the American Red Cross, United Way and Catholic Charities.
White House officials said that they support help for the homeless but stressed that the federal government already has spent $370 million to date on the emergency homeless program, which since 1983 has provided funds for soup kitchens, food banks and emergency shelters.
A spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget called the additional funding fiscally irresponsible and not likely to reach the homeless in time to make a difference this winter. He criticized switching funds from the disaster relief program, saying that it could deplete an important program and set a bad precedent for the "raiding" of special funds.
But Rep. Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.), who heads a House panel that recommended the emergency legislation, said that Congress could easily allocate added funds for disaster relief. More important, he said, is that the need for additional homeless shelters has become acute, with much of the nation reeling under winter storms.