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Mitch Snyder, who fasted for weeks to force President Ronald Reagan to renovate a building as a “model shelter,” drew media attention to the plight of the homeless in Washington, D.C. But the media have yet to tell the public the scope of the problem on a national scale or to inform the public of the cruel and corrupt bungling of federal agencies that supposedly were to help solve the problem.

In April 1985, a subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Operations studied homelessness across the country and found it to be of epidemic proportions. It called for President Reagan to declare homelessness a “national emergency” and placed the problem on a scale unheard of since the Great Depression. The number of homeless has increased so rapidly in the past two decades that analysts and the Census Bureau are hard pressed to keep track; today’s estimates range from 250,000 to three million.

The primary federal assistance agency created solely to aid people without shelter is the Homeless Task Force, in the Department of Health and Human Services. The Task Force, formed in 1983, was to provide federal resources to the homeless by making “sharing agreements” with other federal agencies. The House subcommittee’s report revealed that these “sharing agreements” have been characterized by bungling, waste, and scandals such as the following:

— The major sharing agreement of 1984 was made with the Department of Defense, which received $8 million to renovate vacant military facilities for use as emergency shelter; although DOD found 600 potential sites, only two were renovated at a cost of less than $l million; the remainder of the money was spend on routine maintenance of army reserve facilities.

— Under another agreement, the DOD was to provide surplus food to food banks that supply homeless shelters and soup kitchens; only 39 of 195 commissaries actually provided food, and then in such limited amounts that it was described in federal records as “minimal.”

— The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was to provide vacant single-family homes; at the end of 1984, HUD held 9225 unsold homes in its enormous inventory, but only 10 of these were provided under the agreement.

— The General Service Administration promised to provide surplus federal buildings for use as emergency shelters; out of 3,874 available buildings, the agency only managed to find three to use as shelters.

Despite the scandalous performance of the Task Force in 1984, no review was scheduled for its 1985 performance. Incidentally, Mitch Snyder ended his fast after President Reagan promised to renovate the building; Reagan subsequently reneged on his promise and the number of homeless Americans continues to increase … silently.


PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE, 12/20/85, “Washington’s Foot-Dragging Role in Dealing with Homeless,” by Polly Leider.