- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 19, 2001

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez is negotiating to transfer the bulk of HUDs $1.1 billion homeless program to the Health and Human Services Department.

Mr. Martinez said at a breakfast yesterday with editors and reporters of The Washington Times that he and HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson have met about a proposed shift of responsibilities for the homeless, and the two departments have created a joint task force "to try to unravel the regulatory maze that now happens on issues of the homeless."

Congress would have to approve the transfer.

The housing department has "spent a large, large sum of money over the past 10 years on homeless issues, with very little to show for it," Mr. Martinez said. "The homeless population seems to be about the same as it was, while at the same time HUD dollars seem to go more and more towards services than they do towards the things that HUD does, which is housing, shelter."

About 70 percent of HUD´s spending for the homeless is for mental health counseling, drug and alcohol treatment, and other services unrelated to shelter, Mr. Martinez said.

"Homelessness I think, by and large, is an issue of addiction, mental illness and things of that nature. We really have to, at HUD, do those things that only HUD does. HHS can be the health provider, the care provider, but the only one that does shelter is HUD."

Both secretaries are amenable to shifting homeless services, although Mr. Martinez said he prefers to have a federal partnership with faith-based organizations to provide counseling and treatment services to homeless adults and children.

"We don´t do it well, first of all. I´m not sure HHS does it well either, frankly, but maybe a faith-based organization would do it best of all, frankly."

President Bush has assigned Mr. Martinez as the administration´s point man in identifying government barriers to the president´s faith-based initiative. The HUD secretary said he would issue an inventory of barriers by the end of next month.

"The bottom line is we are very focused" on the president´s initiative, he said. "We´re really the lead agency on this, and we´re going to be very much pushing forward on that."

Mr. Martinez recalled his own experience as one of 14,000 "Pedro Pans" — Cuban children who escaped Fidel Castro´s Cuba between December 1960 and October 1962 with help from the Kennedy administration and the Catholic diocese in Miami, which placed him in a foster home 41/2 years before his parents could leave the communist-controlled island.

He said of Mr. Bush´s faith-based initiative: "It´s a program and an idea that I very much relate to and understand because, in my own life, I was touched by Catholic charities … in partnership with the federal government."

The HUD secretary said he has asked congressional leaders to give him leeway to rebuild the management team and morale at HUD, which were severely damaged with the appointments by his predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, of political operatives called "community builders" at HUD offices throughout the country.

The political appointments bypassed HUD´s career professionals — "not good management, in my view. We´re going in a different direction," Mr. Martinez said.

Some congressional leaders want prompt action on new HUD spending initiatives "to get more housing production going," he said. "I´m saying, give me a year, let´s catch our breath. Before we do more, before we throw more money at the problem, wouldn´t you want to know that the $30 billion you´re already putting in here a year is being well spent?"

A major concern is "endemic corruption" in about a dozen of the country´s 3,600 federally funded local housing authorities, particularly in New Orleans and Puerto Rico, the secretary said.

"I think that there has been an attitude that boys will be boys," he said of corrupt HUD employees, contractors and local housing officials. "Only a dozen or so (of local housing authorities) are chronically troubled, but those are really bad. And so that sort of permeates the whole atmosphere. We need to be more vigilant about that, also expecting more of our local mayors who oftentimes get a pass on all this."

HUD´s inspector general and a recent state audit catalogued rampant misspending by the New Orleans housing agency, which was unable to account for $1 million spent during the review period. Auditors also could not account for three months worth of taxes withheld from the paychecks of housing agency employees but not received by the Internal Revenue Service.

In Puerto Rico, prosecutors have won at least 13 indictments against local housing officials charged with embezzling more than $2.5 million in federal funds.

Because of the corruption scandal, Congress blocked payment of a $130 million settlement won by the Puerto Rico Public Housing Authority in a lawsuit charging HUD had shortchanged it over the years.

A House-Senate conference committee blocked payment in an appropriations measure in September until Congress received assurances that the scandal had been investigated and HUD´s inspector general had given the Puerto Rican agency a clean bill of health.

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