Self-Help Urged for Homeless Clinton's `Social Contract' Promises Improved Facilities in Exchange for Counseling

Article excerpt

BY the end of the month, federal and local officials plan to open two new 24-hour drop-in centers with showers, lockers, free laundry machines, and coffee in downtown Washington neighborhoods.

The centers are intended as recruiting posts to draw the "treatment resistant" homeless into social services. This is the first step in a plan that Clinton administration officials hope may become a new national approach to homelessness - an approach that requires the homeless to actively participate in efforts to bring more stability to their lives.

The government is proposing a social contract: revamped services and facilities in exchange for an agreement to participate in job counseling, mental health, or rehabilitation programs necessary to address the root causes of their homelessness.

The District of Columbia is serving as the testing ground for the pilot program. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the government agency that oversees most federal homeless programs, has pledged $20 million to the program over the next three years.

"We're saying that we'll do a better job of addressing your needs, but you'll be expected to respond to that. If you don't participate in your own development, the social contract says, `We're very sorry, but we have to move on to someone else,' " says Vincent Gray, director of the District's Department of Health and Human Services and chairman of the city's Interagency Homeless Coordinating Council.

The prevalence of homeless who remain outside the system despite available services hit home last week when a woman died on a bench across the street from HUD headquarters. Yetta Adams, coping with mental illness and alcoholism, had repeatedly spurned the services of social workers, doctors, and shelters.

This incident helped spur HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros to advance the city several hundred thousand dollars from the $20 million fund for aggressive outreach to get the homeless out of the cold this winter. HUD had planned not to distribute the money until the District created a new agency to oversee the initiative.

The new strategy marks a recognition that past emergency approaches "have not worked, cannot be reformed, are inherently flawed, and must be replaced," according to an outline published jointly by HUD and the District government. Federal spending for the homeless has increased from $400 million in 1988 to more than $1 billion in 1992 and 1993, but it has been largely ineffective, Mr. Gray says.

The government is enlisting the help of nonprofit organizations and even District police for the new program. Community police will be trained with the nonprofits and help to encourage the homeless to check in to assessment centers, where case workers can pinpoint unmet needs that may be keeping homeless from locating and remaining in housing.

Initiative organizers estimate that three-quarters of homeless single adults and 20 percent of homeless families have "special needs" and could benefit from mental-health treatment and counseling. The remaining, with short-term needs, will have greater access to job training and increased opportunities for affordable housing. The initiative also includes provisions for a computer network to identify families at risk of being evicted.

Gray says treatment is the first step in breaking the cycle of poverty. "I just don't think there are simplistic answers to what causes homelessness. …