Federal housing official offers hope to homeless


In the shadow of a South Baltimore shelter, a high-ranking federal housing official brought an eloquent message of hope yesterday to the homeless men who have found refuge there.

For far too long, said Andrew Cuomo, HUD's assistant secretary for community planning and development, cities have received inadequate federal aid for programs like the South Baltimore Station, a shelter mainly for men overcoming drug and alcohol abuse.

Baltimore was the first stop on Mr. Cuomo's 10-city publicity blitz for legislation that would boost from $800 million to $1.6 billion the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's annual budget for homeless programs.

Under the Clinton administration proposal now before Congress, cities with the largest homeless populations would qualify for a greater share of HUD funding. Local jurisdictions also would have greater control over spending the grants.

"It is a dramatic call for new funds to what is, in our opinion, a dramatic and desperate problem," said Mr. Cuomo, son of New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo. "The whole topic of homelessness -- we've talked about it so long that I think we've lost some of the essence of the problem.

"These are the people who are at the bottom of the bottom of society." If the proposal is approved, Baltimore would be eligible for as much as $14.7 million in federal grants a year, four times the current average of $3.7 million. Baltimore County also would see a significant boost, from $70,000 to $2.5 million.

An applauding Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke rose to his feet when Mr. Cuomo announced that the city had won a $2.8 million grant to provide rental assistance and services to disabled homeless people.

For Michael Blake, a 39-year-old Vietnam War veteran who found a home at the South Baltimore Station, Mr. Cuomo's words offered a promise to all the other men with substance abuse problems who wind up on the streets.

"I was lucky," said Mr. Blake, who is now sober and in an employment training program. "A lot of people don't know this is here."

The shelter, a converted firehouse at West and Leadenhall streets, provides neat beds, self-help counseling and a fresh start to men -- who make up the city's largest homeless group and have the most trouble finding shelter.

In Baltimore, some 2,000 to 2,400 people are homeless on any given night, said Joanne Selinske, director of the Mayor's Office of Homeless Services. Eighty percent are single adults, and the vast majority are men.

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