SACRAMENTO — Calling the Reagan Administration's decision "lawless and inhumane," welfare advocates on Tuesday filed suit in federal court to overturn the Department of Health and Human Services' rejection of a $40-million state program to help the homeless.
California's only effort to find permanent homes for 30,000 families living on the streets and in emergency shelters was tentatively rejected earlier this month because of federal concerns that providing additional aid to the homeless would discriminate against other poor people.
The program, which was authorized by legislation signed into law last year by Gov. George Deukmejian, was to begin Feb. 1, offering emergency grants and permanent housing payments to cover security deposits, the last month's rent and other costs of renting a home or apartment. Homeless families would have received the money through the federal Aid to Families With Dependent Children--the nation's largest welfare program, whose costs are split evenly between the federal government and states.
The class-action lawsuit, filed by the Western Center on Law and Poverty on behalf of seven homeless families, seeks to force the federal government to pay its share of the costs and charges that its refusal violates the Social Security Act.
"The absurdity of (the federal government's) position is obvious," said Casey McKeever, an attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, in announcing the lawsuit.
"The program provides temporary and permanent housing benefits to allow families, even those that are able to get some shelter, to get into permanent homes," McKeever said. By maintaining that the payments to the homeless would be discriminatory, the federal government, he said, is really saying "that homeless assistance must be made available even to people who are not homeless."
Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg (D-Sacramento), who authored the state's homeless act, said the Reagan Administration's stance is based "on no logic, no reason, no law and no intelligent information or position that we can determine. They simply made a decision that they do not believe there should be special programs aimed at the homeless."
Meet in Washington
Last week, Clifford Allenby, secretary of the state Health and Welfare Agency, met in Washington with Health and Human Services Undersecretary Don Newman in the hope of convincing officials that there is nothing wrong with giving larger AFDC grants to the homeless under the premise that they use the money to find permanent homes.
Allenby said he came away with the impression that Newman and other Administration officials fear that California's program might be copied by states across the nation, significantly increasing federal costs. "As California goes, so goes the rest of the nation," Allenby said.
A spokesman for Undersecretary Newman confirmed that the meeting took place but would not comment on the Administration's position, nor on the likelihood that the department would reverse its decision and allow the program to go forward.
Allenby said Newman offered to reconsider if the state would redraft its proposal as a three-year demonstration project or seek financing from another federal source.
Would Delay Start
McKeever, however, noted that both alternatives would require new state legislation, further delaying the program's start. "They gave us alternatives that I think they knew would not be acceptable," McKeever said.
The federal action already is being anticipated.
The Rev. Wayne Johnson of the Sonoma County Task Force for the Homeless said his group was counting on $45,000 to open a major shelter in Sonoma County for as many as 250 homeless families. Although the community has raised $70,000 and a vacant hospital building has been donated, the lack of federal support means that there will not be enough money to open the shelter.