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29 Froze to Death Last Year : Homeless Search for Shelter as Winter Looms

Associated Press

They’ll be waiting under bridges in Maine when police come to hand out blankets. They’ll seek the warmth of O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. They’ll hole up on beaches, in flophouse hotel rooms, in cars that have become their last possessions.

As America’s hundreds of thousands of homeless people face winter, cities and states are scrambling to offer innovative help, so that fewer may die this year. Last year, at least 29 men and women froze to death.

In Alabama, computers bought with homeless relief funds are matching people with shelters; in Kansas City, families are taking strangers in, and in several states jail cells are being designated for the overflow.

Roger Neff, who has come to know those who’ve lost their homes and ended up at his Souls Anchor Rescue Mission in Casper, Wyo., says, “I haven’t met one yet that liked the life style they’re in.”

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U.S. society doesn’t like it either.

Several recent polls, including one in May by the Roper Organization, found that Americans consider solving homelessness a top priority for government. Sixty-eight percent of those responding to the Roper poll called it No. 1.

Robert Hayes, counsel for the National Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group based in New York, says his speeches usually contain a litany of “how bad everything is. But then I point to what clearly is a changing attitude. You can’t even quantify it.

Visible Problem

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“Americans are content to let people suffer their poverty--as long as they don’t see it. But homelessness is pretty visible. It does strike people as wrong.”

“Society won’t put up with it anymore,” agreed Ralph Hays, director of an Indiana task force on homelessness. “For decades society has put up with it. Now we have women and families who are homeless.”

Twenty-eight percent of those with nowhere to live are now families with children, according to a U.S. Conference of Mayors survey last December. Of the rest, single men outnumber single women about 4 to 1, it said.

Checks by the Associated Press in every state found officials nearly unanimous in saying the problem of homelessness is growing.

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It’s aggravated by the depressed agriculture and oil economy in North Dakota; by a booming economy that pushes rents beyond people’s reach in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. In Buffalo, Mayor James Griffin complained about “the revolving door treatment” that puts mentally ill people on the streets; AIDS and the isolation it brings are to blame in more and more cases of homelessness.

A Missouri legislative committee listed other reasons for the rise: “divorce, being released from jail with no place to go, being stranded while traveling, domestic violence, fire and health problems.”

How many people have these crises put on the street? Federal estimates range from 250,000 to 2 million, and advocacy groups guess 3 million.

In addition to the millions of dollars provided by charities and by local and state governments, the federal government is now committed to spending $1 billion over two years to help the homeless. President Reagan in July signed an authorization bill sponsored by the late Rep. Stewart McKinney (R-Conn.).

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About $355 million has been appropriated and is beginning to reach city, state and private homeless agencies, though Hayes and others complain about the pace of allocations.

Much of the money is going toward improving or opening shelters and extending emergency facilities beyond the major cities.

Housing Allocations

Shelters are in the works in Barrow, Kotzebue and Ketchikan in Alaska; in Elko, Nev., and in Coventry, Vt., where a converted farmhouse is becoming a rural shelter.

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Among the causes of homelessness, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, are decreases in housing allocations from the Department of Housing and Urban Development--from $32 billion in 1981 to $7.17 billion in 1986. HUD concedes that construction has virtually halted but says more poor people are being helped through rent subsidies for existing units.

The waiting list for public housing in St. Louis is 17,000 families; in Atlanta, 5,800.

Authorization of the McKinney Act spending represented a major success in advocacy groups’ efforts to enact a package of laws to protect homeless people, says Hayes. Beyond emergency help, the groups want permanent housing to replace shelters and measures to stop unfair foreclosures and evictions.

The pool of money to care for the homeless is hard to measure--because of the varied sources, private and public, that fill it and because funds for job training, nutrition and health care, not just shelter, may be counted as contributing.

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In New Jersey, for example, $12 million in the largest program to help the homeless, the Emergency Assistance Program, comes half from the state and half from the federal government and provides food and shelter through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children and municipal welfare programs, said Larry Hatton of the state Department of Human Services.

An additional $4.35 million from the Comprehensive Emergency Assistance System will go to New Jersey counties to dole out to private organizations that run homeless programs. The Homelessness Prevention Program helps pay rent and mortgage payments for people about to be evicted; it has $2.8 million. The state also expects $10 million to $20 million in McKinney Act funds.

Money is being used in a variety of creative ways.

While also upgrading shelter space, Birmingham, Ala., spent the bulk of one $43,000 allocation on computers that allow needy people more immediate referral to agencies that have bed space, food and other supples.

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In New Orleans, federal money will build a day-care center so parents can look for jobs, said Director of Human Resources Penny Brazile.

In Albuquerque, N.M., an $11,000 grant to the Health Care for the Homeless Project provides dental care.

Last Month’s Rent

On a much larger scale, California plans to start a $38-million program in February to help welfare recipients with children get housing. AFDC grants normally cover one month’s rent and other living expenses, but nowadays the last month’s rent is often payable, too.

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“We reasoned that if we could provide a supplement so the last month’s rent could be paid, that would keep them from having to go out on the street,” said Margaret DeBow, assistant state health and welfare secretary. Similar programs have been established in other places, including Louisiana.

Asked about special programs for the homeless in New York City, Ann Ormsby, spokeswoman for the city Human Resources Administration, said, “We have employment initiatives, housing initiatives, teen-age pregnancy initiatives; we have drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, we have relocation services.”


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