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Committee on Financial Services

United States House of Representatives

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Opening Statement

Rick Lazio


H.R. 217

Homeless Housing Programs Consolidation and Flexibility Act

March 5, 1997

The Subcommittee will come to order.

Today, the Members of the Subcommittee will hear testimony and discuss the issues surrounding homelessness. On the first day of this Congress, I introduced H.R. 217 entitled the "Homeless Housing Programs Consolidation and Flexibility Act." If enacted this bill will represent the most major legislative homeless initiative since the early 1980's .

I can remember a time growing up, when homelessness was very minimum. Terms, such as "HOBO" and "vagrants" referred to a few members of our community who didn't have a home. For the most part, a majority of our citizens lived in clean, safe and healthy housing environments. However, increasingly over the last two decades, homeless victims, as we know it today, have become permanent fixtures in our urban communities, and more recently in rural and suburban areas as well. Instead of thinking of HOBOS and "vagrants" we think more in terms of families, teens, and single adults with significant mental disabilities.

You can walk through most major cities and find some of our fellow citizens sleeping in parks, looking for food out of garbage cans, and, sometimes hallucinating in some instances. Today, these observations rarely "shock the conscience" in some of our communities.

The purpose of H.R. 217 is threefold:

First, to maximize the taxpayer's investment in homeless programs that ensure superior performance and value for housing and services;

Second, to facilitate permanent solutions to homelessness where we stop the historical pattern of just treating symptoms. Instead, we propose a holistic approach using various resources; and,

Third, to provide incentives to local communities to meet the challenges of homelessness that they face every day.

The past 15 years represented an incremental approach by this Congress to spend well over $5 billion on various homeless problems. Yet, the public questions whether the value of that taxpayer investment has made a significant dent in eliminating homelessness. At some point, in response to those concerns, it is the Congress' responsibility to reassess and rethink our approach to the homeless problem and perhaps ask some very fundamental questions:

1.   Who is homeless and how did they get there?

2.   What type of housing best serves the homeless and how do we get homeless people access to housing?

3.   What services, if any, are necessary to assist those homeless people staying in housing?

4.   Why do we have chronically homeless individuals, given the variety of service providers and assistance available?

And most importantly,

5.  How can the federal government provide better coordination, partnerships and greater flexibility to homeless advocates, albeit state and localities or non-profit organizations?

I looked at the hearing records of this Subcommittee's previous hearing on homelessness and was left with the feeling that the federal government and this committee continued to walk in circles without every coming to any meaningful way to effectively end this problem or to provide permanent housing solutions.

Under today's approaches, we spend $823 million annually in McKinney HUD Housing dollars and use approximately 50%-70% of those funds for services, rather than permanent housing solutions. Although I recognize and understand the need for supportive services, I believe that the taxpayer would get more value for the public's investment if we provided incentives for linkages with other agencies and resources.

I've found that progressive housing advocates provide the linkages with various resources, private and public to ensure a well-financed and thought-out homeless facility. It seems ludicrous that we would allow bureaucratic barriers to be placed in the way of transforming lives in a meaningful way. Our homeless programs must be intertwined between housing and services in order to transform lives with the goal of self-sufficiency.

The McKinney HUD funds, with some modest support for services, were intended for housing programs; simply "bricks and mortar:" It seems that the program's intent was turned upside down and HUD became a primary resource for substance abuse counseling, mental illness diagnosis and assistance, HIV/AIDS counseling and treatment, food assistance, etc.

Homelessness is not just a housing problem for some individuals; it's a symptom of other pathological problems. Yet, I find myself perplexed that our federal approach is to dump this problem totally on HUD, who is ill-prepared to meet a mission it was never designed to hold.

The importance of supportive services can be seen in the case of Beatrice M., a former heroin and cocaine addict who had lost her three young children to foster care in NYC. Beatrice want to Woodycrest-a residentially facility located in the South Bronx for families and single adults living with HIV infection. Once Beatrice had demonstrated a commitment to a drug free lifestyle and with the help of the social service staff at Woodycrest, she was granted custody of her three children by the NYC foster care agency. With additional social work and assistance from Woodycrest, Beatrice will soon be placed in a job (she now volunteers) and her 2 children (one died of AIDS) will move from her a Woodycrest-subsidized apartment to independent living.

Who wouldn't argue that HUD will need cooperation and collaboration with the other agencies who have eligible block grants, but have failed to meet the challenge of homelessness?

H.R. 217 will not only consolidate the various homeless programs, but also require coordination among the different agencies. The bill is intended to provide a non-adversarial approach for agencies such as HHS and Labor to provide service funds for these homeless programs and the deserving homeless service providers.

The legislation also requires a match where the grant recipients bring hard cash, or the value of goods or services, equal to 50% or the federal grant to the table. I believe that it is imperative that other government sectors also face the responsibility of this issue. In the vast majority of cases, matches will not be a problem. In some areas, however, localities have perceived homelessness as a federal problem, without any coordination or local assistance. Hopefully, this match requirement will provide incentives for localities and states to provide creative and flexible solutions.

Finally, another major thrust of this legislation would emphasize permanent housing solutions. Out of this block grant will be a modest competitive block grant for acquisition, construction and significant rehabilitation. I think it is necessary that we get to the heart of the issue and provide affordable housing for a very vulnerable population, with the support and collaboration of other agency services to ensure that these populations are never dumped on the streets again.

It is apparent that the system has failed for these homeless people. Either they have mental or physical disabilities preventing them from obtaining housing or they are families who, for bad luck, can't find housing because they are experiencing a temporary family or income problem. In either case, it is important that this committee begin the process of understanding the dynamics of the issues so that we may enhance legislation that provides a greater effective tool.

Before I acknowledge the Members of this Subcommittee and the witnesses, I will ask unanimous consent to place in the record, a February 8, 1997 article published in THE ECONOMIST, entitled "Down and Out: Homelessness is one of America's most visible social ills. Can economics offer ways to cure it?" The article outlines the distinctions between two schools of thought: (1) promoted by Christopher Jencks, a social scientist at Harvard University who argues that homelessness is caused by drug and substance abuse and mental illness, which have little to do with housing economics; and (2) promoted by Brendan O'Flaherty of Columbia University, who is one of our witnesses today, cites changes in the housing market as the largest factor in the rise of homelessness. This article was a major impetus for having this hearing to discuss the explanations and possible solutions to homelessness. Dr. Jencks was invited to participate today, but declined because of a scheduling conflict.

Today, we have four expert witnesses: Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, Dr. Brendan O'Flaherty, Dr. Dennis Culhane and Dr. Martha Burt. All four have differing perspectives and observations on the homelessness. I am hopeful that we can use this hearing to engage in a worthwhile discussion of the issues that cut to the heart and foundation of the debate on who, what and how we deal with the homelessness.

I intend to hold a second hearing, inviting the Administration, homeless service and housing providers, and state and local government officials to discuss the specifics of the legislation.

Without any further delay, welcome.

I recognize my distinguished colleague and Ranking Democratic Member, Mr. Joe Kennedy for an opening statement.


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