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Less help for the homeless

MANY PEOPLE are homeless simply because they lack money for rent. For years the federal government has helped by giving direct subsidies to low-income people. Now President Bush is calling for limits.


The demand for help is huge. In Massachusetts the waiting list for these rent subsidies, known as Section 8 vouchers, has 40,000 names. Last spring Governor Romney asked the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for 1,800 more vouchers to add to the 19,000 the state already had. Romney was refused.

President Bush could have helped by increasing funding for this subsidy in his budget for next year. Instead, the administration has called for change that's "fiscally responsible." Bush's budget request for the voucher program is $13 billion, slightly less than last year. But the Bush administration argues that with new rules, housing authorities will be able to serve the same number of households, 1.9 million, and possibly more.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition argues that Bush's cut could mean the loss of thousands of vouchers. And it says he new rules could further cripple the program by letting local housing authorities set their own rules. For example, tenants are typically required to pay 30 percent of their income toward rent, and vouchers cover the rest. A housing authority might ask tenants to pay more, hurting the poorest families.

Despite the Bush administration's hopes that housing authorities can do more with less money, the threat of cuts is particularly bad news in homeless shelters. At Project Hope's shelter in Dorchester, staff members talk of one resident who had a job that paid well, a good lifestyle, and the ability to afford a market-rate rent. Her daughter went to a good school. The woman writes: "Hardship and juggling to pay bills was the last thing on my mind, till I lost my job."

She fell behind on her rent and couldn't find another job. Families who end up at Project Hope find on-site education programs, help with housing searches, child care, and a kitchen. But not all shelters have these services. And the state has some 365 homeless families in motels, where it's harder to search for housing.

Officials at HUD argue that vouchers are too expensive, that "double-digit cost increases for this program are not sustainable." But according to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, one reason voucher costs have risen is that housing costs have gone up while incomes for many recipients have dropped. The need hasn't changed just because addressing it has become more expensive.

Some might say that housing is not an entitlement. But homelessness is a national embarrassment -- one that the country can afford to eliminate.

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