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New homeless plan could be neutralized

Thursday, July 08, 2004

New homeless plan could be neutralized
Proposed cuts in HUD housing subsidies criticized

Despite their delight at creating a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness -- and delivering it to City Hall on time -- San Francisco's homeless advocates and planners alike are now worried that proposed cuts to a federal program that helps poor people pay rent could undercut their hard work before it begins to show fruit.

The Bush administration wants to slash $1.6 billion from Section 8, the biggest program in the nation giving rental subsidies to low-income people, and allow those who make more money to qualify. Congressional leaders, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, are fighting to block the changes -- and fear that if they lose, as many as 250,000 of the 2 million people now getting the subsidies will be thrown out of their homes.

That could then backfill the ranks of panhandlers, some worry, keeping the homelessness crisis at the same level no matter how successful San Francisco's plan might be at pulling the most troubled into permanent, counseling-enriched housing.

Are the fears founded? The answer is a complicated yes -- and no, depending on whom you talk to.

San Francisco's homeless population is estimated to be about 15,000. Of those, 3,000 are considered to be the most chronically dysfunctional and visible. They are the ones who suffer from drug, alcohol or mental problems, and they are the focus of the city's 76-page "Plan to Abolish Chronic Homelessness," unveiled last week.

The other 12,000 homeless run the gamut from functional drug addicts to the elderly, the disabled and the working poor. People in this group sometimes pay rent, sometimes don't, and in between stints on the street seek refuge in shelters, cheap hotels or relatives' homes.

Of the estimated 600 to 800 people who the San Francisco Housing Authority says could lose their Section 8 rental vouchers in the city next year under the Bush administration's proposed changes, experts agree that most will not quickly wind up among the chronic transients. Those tend to be so dysfunctional that they are barely able to apply for basic welfare, let alone Section 8.

There are 7,200 people getting Section 8 vouchers in San Francisco, and according to the Housing Authority, few of them were homeless before they got their vouchers.

But Teresa Friend, managing attorney for the nonprofit Homeless Advocacy Project, said cutting back Section 8 would "take away an important tool for trying to solve the problem, especially at a time when we have a promising new plan. Poor people who lose their rental housing may not become homeless right away, but they have a good chance of winding up that way."

The San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness agrees and scheduled a gathering for today in front of the Federal Building to denounce the plan.

Mayor Gavin Newsom was so concerned about the proposed cuts that he wrote a resolution at last month's annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors urging the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which runs the 30-year-old program, to reconsider them. The resolution was approved, and when he announced the 10-year homelessness plan at City Hall last week, Newsom reiterated his request as he stood at the side of President Bush's homelessness czar, Philip Mangano.

Mangano said the idea of the changes was not to cut the number of people in the program but to reform Section 8's out-of-control costs. The program's budget has increased 30 percent in the past three years.

If Section 8 gets too expensive, nobody will want to support it in the future, Mangano said.

"There is no appetite in this administration, in HUD, in Congress or in me for doing anything that will create more homelessness," he said.

The cuts to the Section 8 national budget will be made up for by streamlining the funding process and giving more control to local housing authorities, said HUD Assistant Secretary Michael Liu. Going local will eliminate time-wasting errors, rules and regulations, he said.

The proposed changes would also let local jurisdictions give Section 8 rental vouchers to people making more than the current allowable cap.

Now, agencies must give three-quarters of all vouchers to people earning 30 percent or less of the local median annual income. In San Francisco, that translates to a limit of $27,000 for a family of four. The Bush administration's proposal would raise the threshold to 80 percent, or $72,000 for a family of four.

Raising the minimum income level would give people on the waiting list the incentive to get better jobs and make more money without being disqualified, Liu said. And the list will move quicker, he said, because if people are able to pay more of their own rent, that will leave money to spread around to more recipients.

"If the program stays as it is, I agree, we will need more money," Liu said. "But why not make it better?"

To that, Marty Fleetwood, head of HomeBase -- a homeless services and study center based in San Francisco -- responded: "Oh, please."

All the federal changes would do, she said, is cut the poorest recipients from the program and slash the number of vouchers being given in San Francisco by 2,103 by the year 2009, to 5,100.

"Even for the chronically homeless, cutting Section 8 takes away an important step," Fleetwood said. "It would mean fewer places for them to graduate to after they've gotten into supportive housing (rooms with on-site counseling services). They become gridlocked, unable to move out on their own.

"This reform would be bad in many, many ways."

RENT-VOUCHER PROGRAM

What Section 8 is: A federal program that subsidizes rent for poor people. Recipients get a voucher certifying that if they pay 30 percent of their income for rent every month, Section 8 will pay the rest.

Number of Section 8 recipients in San Francisco: 7,200

Number of Section 8 recipients in the United States: 2 million

Change proposed by the Bush administration: Give less money than is needed to maintain the present number of subsidies, but give local governments more authority to reconfigure and possibly improve the way the subsidies are given out.

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