THE GREAT DIVIDE

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In the midst of an otherwise predictable State of the Union address in January, President Bush introduced a surprisingly bold plan: a $300 million, 4-year initiative to help ex-offenders re-enter society. “When the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life,” he said, drawing applause from both sides of the aisle.

Unfortunately, he never specified where the $300 million would come from. Now it seems that $25 million will be yanked directly from this year’s U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s McKinney Act funds, which provide shelter and services for homeless people.

That doesn’t sit well with advocates. “It seems like every year something else happens that eats away at the pot of money without the pot of money ever getting any bigger,” said Rita Zimmer, co-chair of the city’s Coalition on the Continuum of Care, which disburses New York’s share of the annual McKinney grant.

“It would be better for everybody if it was funded through the criminal justice system,” added Laura Grund, policy analyst for the Supportive Housing Network of New York, whose member organizations depend on McKinney funds.

Instead, most of the money will come from the Department of Labor, which is already running a job-training program for ex-offenders. HUD’s $25 million will go to the Department of Justice, which will pony up $15 million of its own.

HUD’s portion might not sound like much divided among the states, but local homeless service providers are already feeling besieged. Last year, New York City received $69 million out of the national $1.2 billion McKinney fund, but the vast majority was spent on renewals of existing programs. To make room for new programs and comply with HUD’s shifting priorities, the coalition made a painful choice: It voted in January to eliminate 51 programs as of 2005 [see “Homeless Aid Axed,” 2/2/04].

So the providers we spoke with were less than thrilled to see any new line items in this year’s homelessness budget. “There’s more money [budgeted] for marriage than for the homeless,” Zimmer pointed out.

HUD spokesperson Adam Glantz cautioned against hand-wringing. “We’re proposing a record level of funding for homeless programs. I don’t think there’s cause for concern.”

But even those who have long pushed for more reentry dollars are wary of Bush’s plan. “The federal government is trying to play up two different policy issues, neither of which they care that much about,” said Richard Cho, a program officer at the Coalition for Supportive Housing and member of the national Reentry Policy Council. “There’s an overlap between prisoner reentry and homelessness, but not every person who comes out of prison is going to be homeless.”

Elizabeth Gaynes, executive director of the Osborne Association, a New York nonprofit that works with prisoners and ex-offenders, agrees that the administration’s approach is too narrow. “Reentry should be family based,” she said. “We ought to empower and assist the families of those returning to our communities to be the “reentry program” of first and last resort.”