WASHINGTON — Advocates for the homeless acknowledge that the federal government is providing critical funds for the nation's street people but say the Reagan administration has shown no leadership in implementing new programs to help the homeless.
As one congressional staff member put it: "The best you can say about the administration's participation is that it is uneven. Where it's easy to plug in, there is no problem. Where they had to develop new responses, they have done little or nothing."
The National Coalition for the Homeless, in a 46-page report released this month, said that $10 million in emergency shelter funds has provided money for hundreds of projects across the country and that more than $300 million in additional funds are being distributed.
But them coalition said the administration had shown an "absence of leadership" in implementing the new programs included in the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, which was named after its chief House sponsor who died shortly before President Reagan reluctantly signed it into law in July.
Although the measure authorized $443 million for fiscal 1987, Congress appropriated just $355 million. Congress is authorized to spend $616 million during the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, but actual appropriations remain uncertain.
While the new aid was roundly praised by Democrats and Republicans, a few dissenters argued that the legislation merely created an expensive welfare program that would do little to reduce homelessness. Critics also noted the lack of concrete information about the number of homeless people in the country; estimates range from 250,000 to 3 million.
Critics cite a delay in getting money disbursed.
The National Coalition filed suit in U.S. District Court in a bid to get the Department of Housing and Urban Development to move on $15 million that Congress had earmarked for special, immediate aid to the homeless.
In a letter to HUD Secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr., Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., threatened "to reduce the administrative expenses in the fiscal 1988 HUD appropriations by a commensurate amount" unless the agency moved quickly in awarding the money.
Coalition Dropped Suit
HUD was to have decided who would get the funds by Aug. 21 and distribute the money by Nov. 20. The department now says the money should be available by Christmas, and the coalition has dropped its suit.
Carl D. Covitz, HUD undersecretary, said the federal agency has moved rapidly to get the programs organized and the money out to the people who need it.
"It is important to focus on how best to get the assistance to the people, out to the cities and towns where it can be most efficiently used," Covitz said.
He said HUD created a task force for the homeless after the legislation was signed into law in July and advertised in the Federal Register within 60 days that the funds were available. Normally, the creation of a program, its definition and its publication in the Federal Register take from six to nine months, he said.
"We still fully intend to make the funds available by the end of the calendar year," Covitz said. "We're talking about $180 million assigned to HUD. We expect the recipients to be identified and the money distributed by the end of next year."
He said the coalition "wants to get it (the money) out as fast as possible, and we agree. Homelessness is a national tragedy. In order to deal with this issue, we have to a coalition of all elements of government and the private sector working together. The reason for that is that the problems of the homeless are different in Phoenix than they are in Philadelphia. Their needs are different."
In its report, the coalition said the nation's homeless again face escalating needs and uncertain resources as winter approaches.
"While in some cases, the newly created 1987 programs have been implemented, in other cases, federal agencies have acted too slowly," the report said. "At the same time, congressional failure to provide full 1988 funding threatens the future and stability of the programs."
In an analysis of 1986 programs, the coalition said the $15 million, including $10 million for emergency shelter and $5 million for longer-term housing, that reached the streets had begun to make a difference. Nevertheless, the process for award and distribution of funds was unnecessarily lengthy, taking as long as nine months, the report said.
The coalition also said HUD's monitoring of the funds was virtually non-existent and the demand for aid greatly exceeded available money.
Under the McKinney Act, an interagency council, made up of cabinet-level agency heads, was created to oversee implementation of the new law.
"The council has failed to play a leadership role in ensuring quick implementation of the act," said the report, adding that the council has met but once since Reagan signed the legislation into law last summer.
In other observations, the coalition said: