The Last Barrier Against Chill

Winter's chill is especially hard on homeless men and women without a roof over their heads. Many are turned away from shelters filled by falling temperatures. The lucky ones are sent away with a thick woolen blanket provided to shelters by the Defense Department, which has been giving away blankets for the homeless as the military downsizes. But now the giveaway is jeopardized by budget cuts.

Shelter Partnership and other advocates for the homeless hope to persuade the White House and Congress to restore $3.5 million in a supplemental budget authorization for 1997, money that would permit the blanket program to continue. They argue that the sum is minuscule compared to the Pentagon's multibillion-dollar budget.

The blanket program was set up by the Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, which required the federal government to distribute surplus goods to the homeless and poor. About 4 million military blankets have been donated at a government cost of $30 million.

The need remains great, however, and defense budget cutbacks could end the program for good. During 1996 budget negotiations, the Senate Armed Services Committee wanted to divert proposed blanket program funding to underwrite military readiness. Such readiness is a top priority, of course, but the federal government also should help provide for homeless people, and making available surplus blankets is an extremely economical form of assistance.

In anticipation of a cutback, some local shelters are stockpiling blankets. If the stock becomes exhausted in 1997, homeless advocates will ask businesses and private individuals for help. The homeless need to be able to count on someone.

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