Family Preservation Cited as Priority in Serving Homeless

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WASHINGTON--Programs for the homeless that work to keep families intact can now expect an edge when they apply for federal grants.

In awarding grants for homelessness programs, federal housing officials will give a "competitive advantage to providers who keep families together and strengthen the family structure,'' Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry G. Cisneros said in announcing the policy last month.

The move followed the release of a report that found that overcrowding at homeless shelters and restrictions on the age and sex of those they serve have contributed to the breakup of many families.

"When a family becomes homeless,'' Mr. Cisneros said, "all their visible means of support have disappeared--without a network of families or neighbors to lend a hand, all a family has left is each other.'' He called it "unacceptable'' to force families to split up for housing.

A spokesman for the Housing and Urban Development Department said the policy will require rewriting regulations for the $600 million in aid to communities the agency provides to address homelessness, mainly through the McKinney Act. Meanwhile, the spokesman said, grant applicants will be notified that HUD "will give priority to programs that work to keep families together, all other things being equal.''

"We are excited to see [HUD] getting involved in the issue and taking responsibility,'' said Chrysanthe Gussis, the assistant to the director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the principal author of the new report.

But tackling the problem, she added, will require "placing much more emphasis on permanent, affordable housing instead of just addressing the shelter-system problem.''

Restyling Shelters

The 19-city survey by the national center, a nonprofit legal-advocacy group, found that 41 percent of providers of services to the homeless said families are breaking up to find shelter.

And about 72 percent of the providers reported turning families away for lack of space.

One problem is that, in an attempt to shelter the growing numbers of homeless women and children while protecting their privacy, many dormitory-style shelters that were set up chiefly to serve single men now place restrictions on their clientele, such as not accepting older males.

As a result, Ms. Gussis noted, males over age 10 may be forced to split from their families and stay with relatives or in a men's shelter by themselves. Half of the family shelters in the cities surveyed do not accept men or teenage boys.

Another problem, Ms. Gussis said, is that in some cases families are threatened with charges of child neglect and may have to have children placed in foster care unless they can find alternative housing.

"I've talked to plenty of women who were separated from their children because they couldn't find shelter,'' she said.

Long-Term Solutions

Besides identifying problems in the shelter system, the report urges long-term strategies to ease homelessness, including: improving welfare benefits and easing restrictions on benefits to two-parent families; insuring families' access to social services, health care, and child care; and increasing incentives to work.

Copies of the report, "No Way Out: A Report Analyzing Options Available to Homeless and Poor Families in 19 American Cities,'' are available at $20 each for individuals and $12 each for nonprofit groups from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 918 F St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20004.

Vol. 13, Issue 01

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