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Shelter Program's a Keeper

July 24, 2002

This month a hotel business group splattered San Francisco with 33 billboards asking versions of this exasperated question: "Why are there so many people living on our streets when we spend more money helping them every year?"

Tough question, and none of the pat answers are fully accurate. In truth, neither those who would turn fire hoses on the "lazy bums" nor those who think that jobs are all that stand between the "homeless" and productive lives have the magic formula for ending this intricate problem.

But the federal Shelter Plus Care program comes as close to a solution as this nation has found. Since Congress created it in the late 1980s, Shelter Plus Care has provided places to live, along with job training, medication management and other services, to 15,000 Americans suffering from chronic mental illness and other serious disabilities.

On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to consider whether to restore about $90 million the Bush administration wants to cut from the $193 million that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and others would give specifically to Shelter Plus Care in fiscal year 2003. If those San Francisco hoteliers are really worried about tourism, they'll put up billboards asking why anyone would even think of taking money away from a program that has proven so successful in moving people off the streets.

Every day, Shelter Plus Care programs, including the Fox-Normandie Apartments in Los Angeles' Koreatown, Step Up on 2nd in Santa Monica and Hillview Village in Pacoima, give people with mental illness a chance to, as one resident put it, "get off our butts and do something with our lives." What's more, 70% to 80% of the people who take advantage of Shelter Plus Care stick with it--a dazzling success rate for a program that serves one of the nation's most help-averse populations.

The Bush administration's top housing official, Mel Martinez, has acknowledged that 150,000 more units of supportive housing will be needed over the next decade. He must know that this new demand cannot be met without new money.

So far, no one has figured out the incantation to--poof--make the problem of people living on the streets disappear. But unless the Senate restores Shelter Plus Care's money, San Francisco and other cities can expect tourists, businesspeople and poor urban families to step around even more people living on sidewalks in ratty tents and cardboard boxes.


To Take Action: Contact Sen. Dianne Feinstein by phone, (202) 224-3841; fax, (202) 228-3954; or e-mail at her Web site, feinstein.

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