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Barring the Homeless On the Basis of Myths

This festive time of year traditionally brings into focus the needs of the poor: It's a time of generosity and giving to those in need. But in some parts of the country, would-be good Samaritans are being denied the opportunity to serve.

* Cash-strapped nonprofit groups in Richmond, Va., seeking to offer shelter or housing for the poor and homeless face stiff new laws - including a $1,000 fee simply to apply for a permit.

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* In Long Beach, Calif., the city has imposed a moratorium prohibiting any new shelters or housing programs for homeless persons.

* Sacramento, Calif., sued Loaves and Fishes, a service provider to homeless people, charging that its activities constituted a public nuisance. The city sought to stop the group from serving meals on Sundays.

In a report issued last month, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found that, in the past year, at least eight cities have enacted or are actively considering new laws to increase restrictions on housing or services for homeless people. What's more, in a survey of 92 housing for the homeless programs in 71 cities and towns across the country, the center found that 41 percent of those programs faced opposition from local governments or prospective neighbors.

Local opposition increases

Ironically, local opposition is increasing at a time when the federal government is turning over more and more responsibility for social welfare programs to state and local jurisdictions - and to private nonprofits. The trend toward "devolution" is on a collision course with the exclusionary trends identified in our study. If those trends continue, the result will be increased need at the local level coupled with decreased capacity to meet this need.

The programs surveyed were winners of a highly competitive federal grant program to provide "transitional housing" - housing with services such as job training, counseling, and day care - to homeless families and individuals as a step toward permanent housing and self-sufficiency. At a time when many cities are struggling with increased poverty and decreased funds, an infusion of federal dollars to address community needs should be welcomed, not spurned.

Opponents of housing and service facilities for homeless and poor people argue that the presence of these programs - and the people they serve - will lead to decreased property values and increased crime. But numerous studies have shown that these fears are unfounded: In fact, in some cases property values went up.

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Opponents also argue that such facilities act as "magnets," drawing needy people from outside the city or state. Again, studies contradict this assumption. In a recent federal study of over 5,000 homeless people, some 75 percent first became homeless in the city where they currently live, and have not moved since. Common sense contradicts it as well: Homeless people, destitute and often mentally or physically disabled, are unlikely to be able to travel in search of better shelter or social services.

Significantly, the Law Center survey found that existing aid for homeless people is woefully inadequate. In 76 percent of the localities for which information was available, by the cities' own estimates there is not enough emergency shelter to meet the needs of the local homeless population. In all but two of the cities - again by their own estimates - there is inadequate transitional housing.

And in none of the cities is there enough affordable permanent housing.

Resolvable conflicts

Our survey found some good news, too. Of the programs that encountered opposition prior to beginning operations, 79 percent encountered none after they began operating. This suggests that fears and assumptions were in fact unfounded, and dissipated once the program began.

Examples in the report demonstrate that conflicts can be resolved successfully so that all can coexist in peace. For example, in Peabody, Mass., some neighbors initially opposed the creation of a "group home" for four mentally retarded women, at one point suggesting an eight-foot high electrified fence. The mayor intervened, brought the two sides together, called a public meeting, presented a map identifying all the group homes already in the city, and provided information about property values. The police chief explained that there had been no increase in crime.

Thanks to this mayor's leadership and initiative, the facility was allowed to go forward and was even welcomed.

What is the solution? At the national level, continued oversight, especially where federal funds are being spent. Locally, proactive efforts by government to protect programs from opposition and to educate the public on the myths on which much opposition is based. President Clinton has made bridging differences in American society a priority. Welcoming the homeless and poor - and those that seek to help them - is one way to reach across divides. Let's extend this holiday season right into our own backyards.

* Maria Foscarinis is a lawyer and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty in Washington.

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