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By Eric Stirgus December 13, 2010

Congressman asks how many federal programs does it take to help homeless?

Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston wanted to be the guy to watch your tax dollars in Washington.

The Savannah Republican recently made an unsuccessful bid to chair the House Appropriations Committee, which oversees the distribution of federal funds. It's considered one of the most powerful positions in Washington. Republican House leaders voted in favor of Kentucky's Harold Rogers.

Kingston put together an 18-page presentation to make his case for the job. It was full of charts and numbers and graphs and a bandaged pig to illustrate the representative's big point -- that Washington's finances are being mismanaged, and Kingston had some conservative and innovative ideas to straighten things out.

The presentation also included some numbers listed as "facts" that made us curious: There are 16 programs to combat homelessness. It was listed under the headline "end duplicative programs."

Since fact-checking is our business, AJC PolitiFact Georgia couldn't pass this one up. Were there that many federal programs out there to help the homeless? And are they duplicative?

The congressman's office told us their numbers came from U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma.

Kingston's spokesman, Chris Crawford, said they believe federal efforts to help the homeless should be under one department, not the myriad of agencies that currently have programs to assist those without permanent shelter.

"Why are we duplicating the efforts so much?" Crawford asked. "Is there something that could be done to consolidate services?"

In 1987, Congress created the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness to lead the federal government's efforts to aid homeless individuals and families. The agency's spokesman, Jason Kravitz, forwarded us its fiscal year 2009 report, which was released in April 2010. The ICH includes 19 federal departments and agencies, ranging from Health and Human Services to the Defense Department.

Kravitz said part of the ICH's mission since Barack Obama became president has been to "break down the silos" that some say exist among the various government agencies. Kravitz said there has been concerns that some federal agencies were unaware of what others were doing to help the homeless.

So does that mean there's duplication?

"Some [of the programs] target youth. Some target the mentally ill. Some target families," answered Sharon Price, the ICH's deputy director for policy.

We reviewed the FY 2009 report and found 27 federal programs to help the homeless. The programs cost at least $1.2 billion. The greatest number of them, eight, are within the Department of Veterans Affairs. One program is aimed at reintegrating homeless veterans back into society, another provides health care, one offers dental care, and another identifies and coordinates services.

Within Veterans Affairs, we found a Compensated Work Theory that, according to the FY 2009 report, "endeavors to match and support work-ready veterans in competitive jobs, and to consult business and industry regarding their specific employment needs." The VA budgeted $26.6 million toward that program. The Labor Department has a Veterans' Reintegration Program, which is "the only nationwide program exclusively focused on assisting homeless veterans reintegrate into the workforce." Its budget was $26.3 million.

The federal Health and Human Services Department has two programs that, in part, try to assist homeless people with mental health issues. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has a Supportive Housing program that has a component that works with people with severe mental illness. HUD's Shelter Care program also works with people who are "seriously mentally ill."

Additionally, there's an Emergency Food and Shelter program and Emergency Shelter grants.

Steve Berg, vice president of programs and policy for the Washington, D.C.-based National Alliance to End Homelessness, is familiar with virtually every federal program for the homeless. The programs, he said, are different. Berg did say some have "similar functions," like the Emergency Food and Shelter program and Emergency Shelter grants. He noted that the grants go to state and local government, while the Food and Shelter program funding goes to large nonprofit organizations. Indeed, local governments can manage how the grants are used. Berg said it is "highly unlikely" that one person would get the same service from different programs.

Berg said some programs, like PATH, focus on implementing initiatives to help the homeless, while Grants for the Benefit of Homeless Individuals center on finding best practices to aid homeless Americans.

"There are reasons why each [program] exists," Berg said.

In summary, we found more federal programs aimed at helping the homeless than Kingston did. Some of the programs do share the same goals, although Berg noted there are some differences in who gets the funding and how they get used. We believe Kingston's statement is accurate, but more information shows there are some differences in about all of these programs. Kingston may not have gotten the assignment he wanted, but the congressman gets a pretty high mark on our rating system, Mostly True.

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Our Sources

"Changing the Culture: A New Vision for the House Appropriations Committee," by Rep. Jack Kingston, Nov. 30, 2010

Telephone interviews with U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness officials, Dec. 8, 2010

Telephone interview with National Alliance to End Homelessness official Steve Berg, Dec. 9, 2010

Telephone interview with Chris Crawford, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., Dec. 10, 2010

U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, FY 2009 report

U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn website

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