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Doors Closed by Red Tape : Housing Stays Vacant as the Homeless Shiver

Times Staff Writer

Harry Sharrott isn’t Ebenezer Scrooge; he’s just a soft-spoken, white-haired, 52-year-old federal bureaucrat trying to put two kids through college at the same time.

But during this holiday week, it seemed to many in this troubled city that Sharrott was tearing a page out of Scrooge’s manual of business practices.

Just after Christmas, Sharrott, the head of the Detroit office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, ordered a group of homeless women and children evicted from an abandoned house owned by HUD.

Not only did Sharrott order them sent back onto the freezing streets, he forced a reluctant Detroit Police Department to lead one woman away in handcuffs in front of assembled local television cameras.

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Ordering the action was deeply agonizing for Sharrott; he has lost sleep this week, talked his decision over with his own children and been forced to “sublimate” his emotions, he said. After all, he did not become a career public servant with an agency charged with creating affordable housing just so he could kick women and children out into the winter wind.

“This feels lousy,” Sharrott said Friday. “If you think I like having a mother with her children arrested you are very much mistaken.”

But he would do it again, Sharrott said, because the regulations are clear: “I know what I will do the next time. I’ll have to throw them out.”

He would have no choice.

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And that, he said, is the point--his case is just one graphic example of how glaring gaps in the nation’s housing policies can often leave federal and local bureaucrats powerless to help in quick and obvious ways.

Navigate Bureaucracy

Sharrott acknowledged that homeless people, almost by definition ill-equipped to navigate the federal bureaucracy, often cannot take advantage of new programs aimed at helping them gain access to long-vacant homes held by HUD.

“The problem is,” Sharrott added only half in jest, “that the poor don’t have any money.”

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Although a new HUD policy is designed to give the homeless access to abandoned homes nationwide, it does not actually allow the homeless to take the homes, Sharrott said. It requires that a financially sound nonprofit group, or some other local agency, take ownership. Such groups must be able to maintain the properties by paying utility and insurance bills, and eventually they must rehabilitate the homes as well.

Clearly, those are expenses that the homeless cannot meet. Yet even many small local organizations set up to help the homeless do not have the money either. Sharrott’s office has briefed 33 Detroit homeless support organizations on the new policy; only one has applied.

“The HUD program is based on some intermediary filling the gap on behalf of the homeless--we at HUD can’t act as the landlord,” said Sharrott. “Somebody has to be able to keep the power and water on, and pay the insurance. But I don’t think a lot of these groups can do that.

“I think this is a policy problem.”

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Deep Passions

Policy debates, however, do not keep people warm against a sub-zero wind-chill factor. And, in a city burdened with thousands of homeless at the same time that a massive population decline has left it with thousands of vacant homes, the HUD eviction stirred deep passions.

“We need some housing now, tonight,” said Sally Pattee, a spokeswoman for the Detroit chapter of the National Union of the Homeless, which protested HUD’s action outside its offices in downtown Detroit on Friday afternoon. The homeless union backed the group that was evicted by HUD, and has been demanding that HUD turn over at least 25 abandoned homes for immediate shelter from the cold.

“There’s not a lot of patience right now with the terminal case of bureaucracy that we are facing,” added homeless advocate Alicia Christian, an adviser to the Philadelphia-based National Union of the Homeless. “It’s a shame and a disgrace for HUD to own homes and keep them abandoned while you’ve got homeless people on the streets.”

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Sharrott does not argue with that. But, he says, he is caught between a weak policy and a freezing winter’s night.


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