Body Count: How the Reagan Administration Hides the Homeless
December 3, 1985
Cold weather is coming, and the streets of American cities are decorated for the holiday season with homeless people and their meager belongings. Shoppers often feel affronted by the sight of the homeless. Most stare straight ahead; a few make gestures of contempt. Our unspoken desire is for these spectral presences, these Dickensian ghosts, to disappear.
In its way, the Reagan administration has acted on that wish. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has tried to make the homeless vanish with numerical sorcery. During the winter of 1984, HUD undertook a $138,000 study designed to refute the claim by advocates of the homeless, in particular Washington’s Community for Creative Nonviolence (CCNV), that over two million Americans have no place to live. CCNV spokesman Mitch Snyder has become one of America’s most visible and relentless advocates for the homeless (see “The Flatbush Faster,” below), and until HUD released its findings in May 1984, Snyder’s two-million figure was widely accepted as a rough estimate.
The HUD findings, published as A Report to the Secretary on the Homeless and Emergency Shelters, stated that probably no more than a quarter of a million Americans were homeless on any winter night last year. The report immediately provoked charges of fraud and deception. Snyder, joined by other homeless advocates, sued in Federal court to stop distribution of the report. That suit was summarily dismissed, but an appeal is still pending.
Last week, after waiting six months for HUD to respond fully to his requests for data underlying the report, Snyder filed another action to force the agency to surrender more documents. But the hunt for hidden information is only one more step toward his ultimate goal. Assisted by volunteer counsel Terry F. Lenzner (formerly of the Senate Watergate Committee staff) and James H. Rowe III, Snyder is seeking a grand jury investigation of at least two administration officials on charges of criminal perjury and conspiracy.
Snyder and his co-workers in CCNV have worked with street dwellers for more than 10 years. Snyder’s frequent dealings with the federal government, as well as the local bureaucracy, have added considerable political experience to his street wisdom, and he is convinced the report’s conclusions were a predetermined attempt to “deprive the homeless of the only thing they have: their existence.” HUD’s claim that there are far fewer homeless than previously believed, he says, is meant to ease pressure for federal relief. The homeless, after all, are not simply an affront to other Americans; they are also a living rebuke to the “success” of the president’s economic program.
When HUD’s Report to the Secretary was released, it was front-page news. Its assessment that there were only 250,000 to 350,000 homeless persons seemed to justify Reagan administration policy, which regarded these people as a problem for the states, localities, and private sector — not the federal government. This view is reflected in the skewed funding of homeless programs: over the past three years, the Reagan budgets have allocated a total of $218 million — about the same amount that New York City spends on its homeless in a single year (see “The Federal Failure,” below).
On the frontlines of opposition to the Reagan policy stands CCNV, which along with local officials and other homeless advocates insists that only federal resources can provide adequate food and shelter. For more than a decade, CCNV has cared for the capital’s homeless with a combination of donated goods, hip ingenuity, and a defiant, prophetic activism. While local communities including Washington were still ignoring the growing numbers on the streets and in shelters a few years ago, CCNV activists went public with hunger strikes and other actions intended to penetrate public apathy. Snyder’s style doesn’t charm everyone in official Washington. Some politicians and pundits are offended by his bold challenge to authority, accompanied by caustic remarks about our “little Western minds that have to quantify everything in sight, whether we can or not.”
But in 1982 Snyder did try to count, admittedly unscientifically, the ranks of homeless Americans by calling shelter providers in other cities and projecting their estimates nationally. From that telephone survey came the figure Snyder used in congressional testimony, of “two to three million.” It was a neat statistic that rounded out to about 1 per cent of the U.S. population, and was intended to reflect the number of people without shelter during the course of a year.
What irritated HUD officials was that the little Western minds of the media had, by early 1984, latched onto Snyder’s figure and used it — in editorials, in news stories, on TV and radio. One way or another these stories all posed the same question: If there are two million homeless, why isn’t the government doing more to help them? The HUD report was Washington’s answer: turn the debate about what to do into a dispute over numbers.
When Mitch Snyder and his colleagues around the country read the report, it didn’t make sense to them. Many of them had been interviewed by HUD and were convinced that the numbers they’d given had been misused. Snyder angrily disputed the report’s techniques as well as its findings and purposes; he said it was “a political document” intended to “mute the atmosphere of urgency” that he and others had fought to create.
A few weeks after the report’s release, Snyder accused HUD officials of fraud before a special joint hearing of the House Banking Committee’s subcommittee on housing and community development and the Government Operations Committee’s subcommittee on manpower and housing (which will reopen its probe of the HUD report December 4). He and other CCNV members called shelter operators around the country, including colleagues in the National Coalition for the Homeless and discovered they too were furious. Snyder organized them to join a lawsuit against further distribution of the report, the first volley in his legal war against an administration whose top officials, as he told Congress, “remind me of nothing so much as a school of piranha circling, waiting to tear the last ounce of flesh.”
Snyder has a dramatic flair. In another life, years ago, he worked on Madison Avenue. But the former ad man has gone much further in combating HUD than Secretary Samuel Pierce or his advisers must have expected. Not satisfied with discrediting the report itself, he is pursuing those whom he accuses of writing the homeless out of existence. And if the Justice Department doesn’t probe his charges, Snyder says he and Lenzner will seek their own hearing before a grand jury and the appointment of a special prosecutor. In the meantime, he has convinced banking subcommittee chairman Henry Gonzalez to reopen his investigation.
Secretary Pierce has never been a White House favorite. He is the Cabinet member who, early in his tenure, was mistaken by the president for a black mayor, and under his tenure HUD has suffered the heaviest cuts in the Reagan budgets. Pierce has also been lambasted annually on Capitol Hill for HUD’s failure to assist the homeless.
In January 1984, Pierce’s boss succinctly entered the debate with his own assessment on Good Morning America: “What we have found in this country — and maybe we’re more aware of it now — is one problem that we’ve had, even in the best of times, and that is the people who are sleeping on the grates, the homeless who are homeless, you might say, by choice.” This was the presidential reaction to a media blitz — including pictures of homeless families with small children — that took place that same month.
Pierce’s response to the growing public relations problem was to study the issue. In early 1983, a HUD deputy had proposed a small study of how HUD initiatives were helping the homeless and how innovative programs in 10 cities were preventing homelessness or assisting homeless families to find permanent homes. But Pierce instead ordered HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research to formulate a national estimate of the homeless, ascertain who they were and what was being done to help them. The study was undertaken by Dr. Kathleen Peroff, then deputy director of the office’s division of policy studies, and the official Mitch Snyder would later accuse of criminal perjury.
Under her direction, HUD staff and an independent consulting firm, Westat, used four techniques to estimate the total number of homeless. HUD had already decided that what they wanted was a “snapshot” of how many homeless there were on an average night in January or February 1984 — a number that would certainly be lower than a count of how many people were without shelter for any extended period during a year. Many people are homeless for a few months, then stay with friends or family before they hit the street again. Others end up in jails, hospitals, or vouchered housing for periods during the year, but administration policy is to consider none of these people officially “homeless.”
The derivation of social statistics such as the number of homeless, hungry, or illiterate is often difficult to comprehend. To lay readers, disputes over methodology may seem arcane or even irrelevant, but they lie at the heart of the political struggle over who should help the homeless and how much they should be helped.
HUD’s estimate was an extrapolation based on previous estimates — and in a very few instances, actual headcounts — done by other agencies. Each of the four methods used was, in essence, a survey of other surveys, manipulated statistically into a national estimate:
All these methods suffered from a variety of technical, practical and even arithmetical errors, according to two statistical specialists — Eugene Ericson of Temple University and Richard Appelbaum of the University of California, Santa Barbara — who examined the report and some of the underlying documentation at Snyder’s request. Several of the shelter providers and experts interviewed by HUD and Westat complained that their estimates had been misquoted or misused. Nine of the 20 largest cities were assessed on the basis of one or two local estimates. And the authors of the Boston and Phoenix studies — Valerie Lanier and Dr. Louisa Stark — blasted the report for ignoring the limitations of their estimates, such as the fact that in Boston, for example, the counters only examined a limited area and not the whole city. Lanier and Stark are plaintiffs in Snyder’s lawsuit demanding that the report be withdrawn.
Ericson and Appelbaum both criticized the weighting system used by HUD, which gave the highest weight to the smallest cities surveyed, and the lowest weight to the country’s five largest cities. Ericson, who assisted the city of New York in analyzing the 1980 census, told the Voice he believed this was a deliberate attempt to understate the number of homeless.
But both Ericson and Appelbaum were most vehement about what Snyder calls the “smoking gun” in HUD’s calculations — an arcane geographical measure known as the “Rand-McNally Metropolitan Areas” or “RMAs,” which were used by HUD to arrive at a ratio between local estimates of homelessness and the country as a whole. Each of the 60 cities surveyed for the HUD report belongs to an RMA, which is a large geographical unit, usually used for marketing purposes, similar to the better-known Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area. The New York City RMA includes the city’s seven million people, plus another 10 million spread across 79 other cities in 10 counties spread across three states. The Los Angeles RMA also comprises about 80 cities; Boston includes 40 cities; Chicago’s RMA stretches across three states, and includes 10 counties and 46 cities.
The problem, according to Ericson and Appelbaum, is that HUD used the RMAs this way: They took already dubious estimates of homeless populations in the surveyed cities and counties which are part, but only part, of the RMAs, added them, and used the total as the numerator in a gigantic fraction. Then they added up the total populations of the 60 RMAs, including cities which were never surveyed or surveyed only superficially, and used that total as the denominator. The resulting fraction, which supposedly represented the ratio of homeless population to total population in the 60 RMAs, was then multiplied by the entire U.S. population, supposedly yielding a national homeless figure.
Appelbaum and Ericson both say that if the estimates gathered by HUD had been applied solely to the central cities from which they were taken, and not to the RMAs, the final figures on national homelessness would have been anywhere from 2.5 to five times as high, or from 650,000 to 1.6 million. This is because the number of people in the 60 central cities surveyed is about 30 million, while the 60 RMAs have a population of 90 million.
Peroff was obliged to defend her study in two separate forums. On May 24, 1984, she and other HUD officials and consultants testified at a joint hearing of the House Banking and Government Operations subcommittees. Six weeks later, she gave a sworn declaration as a defendant in Mitch Snyder’s federal lawsuit to have the HUD report withdrawn.
Snyder and his lawyers examined both the congressional testimony and the sworn statement carefully, and he says he has found at least 13 instances of perjury by Peroff. Whether Peroff lied intentionally is a matter to be decided by a jury, but there are serious discrepancies in some of her statements — enough so that Gonzalez subcommittee director Gerald McMurray says discreetly that he “hopes HUD will be more forthcoming on how they put together the report” at next month’s hearing.
Among the discrepancies is Peroff’s description, in her sworn statement to the U.S. District Court, of the HUD report’s definition of “homeless” and her assertion that that definition, which included homeless people temporarily in jails and hospitals, was explained to the local experts surveyed by HUD and Westat. The questionnaires used by interviewers show this isn’t true, and several of those interviewed say it was never explained to them.
Most of the accusations of perjury, however, revolve around the issue of RMAs. Some of these could be dismissed as differences of interpretation, but there certainly are contradictions between the report itself, HUD’s congressional testimony, and Peroff’s account in her sworn statement.
Although the word “metropolitan” appears nowhere in the seven-page questionnaire strictly followed by the HUD interviewers, Peroff claimed in her sworn declaration to the U.S. District Court that they “always noted what the area basis of the estimate was so that the computation of the final metropolitan reliable range was based on: 1) an entire metropolitan figure; or 2) adding estimates obtained for separate jurisdictions within the metropolitan area.” In the same declaration she also referred to the “metropolitan estimates provided in these interviews (which) resulted in a national estimate…” And she claimed that in the largest metro areas, such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, “calls were made by HUD staff to central cities and to all jurisdictions outside the central cities but within the RMA, to obtain additional homeless estimates for these jurisdictions.” In fact, HUD interviewers did call some of the counties surrounding the central cities in each RMA, but this was far from surveying “all jurisdictions.” Several of the shelter operators and other professionals interviewed by HUD disputed Peroff’s assertion that “those interviewed… were asked only to give estimates for the particular jurisdiction within the metropolitan area which they were knowledgeable about.”
The defense of the estimate for New York City, in Snyder’s view, is the clearest example of an outright lie. Peroff claimed in her sworn declaration that “Forty interviews were held with persons knowledgeable about specific suburban areas in order to obtain estimates of the extent of homelessness in each of the separate jurisdictions. These separate estimates were then added to the New York City estimate to arrive at an estimate for the entire metropolitan area.” Assistant HUD Secretary June Q. Koch repeated the same claim in a statement submitted to Congress.
But Appelbaum, after examining HUD’s documents, could find only 32 interviews with suburban New Yorkers — and only 18 of these offered homeless estimates. The others all refused, yet the jurisdictions served by their agencies were counted in the total population figures.
Peroff, who has moved from HUD to the Office of Management and Budget, is indignant at Snyder’s charges and the criticism of her work. “I simply didn’t perjure myself,” she says. The RMA method was chosen, she says, because it best represents the country’s urbanized areas where most of the homeless are located, adding that “critics of the report… don’t have a statistical background.” The smaller RMAs were given greater weight, she explained, because they had “a lesser probability of being sampled. There was a greater probability that we’d select one of the large RMAs, of which there are few, than the small RMAs, of which there are many.” But nowhere in the report is the precise rationale for the weighting scheme explained — that is, why a small RMA was given 20 times the weight of a large one.
Peroff agrees that HUD only got 18 estimates for the urbanized areas outside New York’s five boroughs, but insists that “we made an attempt to call every person whose name came to us and in New York City we had good statistics made available to us on the number of people in shelters.” Peroff hasn’t retained a lawyer to defend her; she says there’s no need to. June Koch, her superior at HUD, failed to return repeated calls from the Voice.
On August 27, 1984, Snyder filed a formal complaint against Peroff and Koch with Joseph DiGenova, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, alleging that the two HUD officials had committed multiple acts of conspiracy and perjury. He asked DiGenova to investigate and present his findings to a grand jury. Snyder offered evidence and witnesses to corroborate his charges, but received no reply from DiGenova. Last March, seven months after the charges were filed, Snyder again wrote to DiGenova — whose office had successfully defended HUD against Snyder’s civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court.
“We were hesitant to file the complaint with you, knowing that your office was representing HUD — and still is — in U.S. District Court,” noted Snyder. “We doubted that you would deal fairly — or at all — with these criminal activities, since you would be both representing and investigating/prosecuting the same HUD officials.”
A few weeks later, Snyder got a reply from Charles Roistacher, a DiGenova assistant. Roistacher referred to his own office’s declaration in defending HUD against the civil lawsuit, saying, “We responded to your complaints of flaws in the report’s methodology.… Upon review, I have concluded that the investigation you request is not warranted.”
Lenzner and the other attorneys representing CCNV charge that DiGenova’s decision was tainted by a conflict of interest. Last month they asked the appeals court to exclude the U.S. Attorney’s office from continuing to represent HUD in the civil suit brought last year to force the withdrawal of the report. They pointed to Roistacher’s letter as proof of the conflict, protesting that “No distinction whatsoever was drawn between the U.S. Attorney’s undertaking of HUD’s defense in the civil action and its responsibility as a neutral, investigative body to expose criminal activity.” No ruling has been handed down yet, but if the court agrees with CCNV, HUD will be forced to retain outside counsel, and DiGenova may have to reconsider Snyder’s allegations of perjury and conspiracy.
Two weeks ago, Lenzner and Rowe filed a new complaint in federal court seeking an injunction to force HUD to release the records and files they requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) six months ago. Lenzner is also assisting congressional staff to prepare for the appearance of HUD officials for further questioning on December 4. The House subcommittees investigating the report are chaired by Texas Democrat Henry Gonzalez and Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, who will be trying to determine how the report was shaped, the extent of involvement, if any, of the White House, and whether HUD officials told the truth when they testified about the report after its release in May 1984.
Although administration officials may consider him disreputable, Mitch Snyder has contacts in the White House. Before mounting his war against HUD, he met with one of them and warned that Secretary Pierce should be quietly forced to withdraw the report on homelessness. But Snyder realized the administration was committed to defending the report when the right-wing Heritage Foundation, the Reagan administration’s private sector arm, tried to bolster HUD with an attack on the report’s critics.
The Heritage paper, written by Anna Kondratas, seems to have done little to resuscitate the report’s credibility. Local and state officials across the country told the Voice that HUD’s estimates were useless and had not influenced their decisions about aiding the homeless. No one on Capitol Hill, in the press or even in the White House has dared to cite the report as a policy guide. In that sense, Snyder’s war has already been won.
Why then have Snyder and his allies continued to press for withdrawal of the report and investigations by a grand jury and Congress? They are prompted in part by a belief that government shouldn’t lie, and that if government officials do lie they should be held accountable.
Mitch Snyder has taken HUD’s attempt to conceal the dimensions of homelessness and used it for the opposite end: to make us face how great a disgrace it is, and how our country is dishonored by manipulations and excuses. Most of all, he feels attention must be paid, not to numbers but to the men, women, and children we forget when we aren’t forced to see them. When the city streets turn to ice, and people we ought to be caring for begin to die, maybe we’ll remember what he tried to tell us.
Research assistance by Ellen McGarrahan.
The Flatbush Faster
Mitch Snyder has been labeled a “zealot” on the editorial page of the Washington Post, and last year the paper published an op-ed piece which called his threat to fast until he died — unless the government provided facilities for the city’s homeless — “a fancy form of terrorism.” But on the streets of Washington, where his face is well known, people constantly approach him to say things like “God bless you. We’re praying for you.”
Snyder, 42, is the high school dropout from Flatbush who began what could have been a successful Madison Avenue career in the ’60s. One morning in 1968, he woke up and decided he didn’t like his life. Snyder left his family — he is now on good terms with his ex-wife and two grown sons — and drifted around the country for a couple of years. He was arrested in 1969, under the since-repealed Dyer Act, which made it a federal crime to ride as a passenger in a car rented with a stolen credit card. Convicted in 1970, Snyder spent most of the next two and a half years in Danbury prison, where he met Philip Berrigan, did a lot of reading, fasted for 72 days to protest the Vietnam war, and emerged in 1972 prepared for a life of commitment. Snyder says he’s fasted for periods totaling about two years, sometimes for political purposes, mostly just to “cleanse my system and get in touch with those people in the world who don’t have enough to eat.” After one fast protesting the Navy’s plans to name a nuclear submarine “Corpus Christi” — literally, “Body of Christ” — Snyder nearly lost his sight. But surgeons at Johns Hopkins donated their services to save his eyes. The Navy called their sub “City of Corpus Christi,” and Snyder called off his fast.
The Community for Creative Nonviolence was founded in 1970 as a pacifist commune dedicated to resistance against the war. By the time Snyder joined them soon after his release from prison, the group had discovered “a direct equivalent at home to the war abroad” — the homeless poor. They opened a soup kitchen in 1972, and over the next couple of years established a “hospitality house” where anybody could find food and shelter. During the 1975 recession they opened their first shelter, in the living room of the commune’s old house on a rundown street in northeast Washington. In addition to about 1000 volunteers who help when they can, CCNV has 50 members, mostly in their twenties and thirties. About 35 of them, including Snyder, live in the giant shelter on Second Street, which the federal government is now trying to shut down.
The confrontation over this dilapidated building, formerly Federal City College, began a few hours before President Reagan’s 1983 State of the Union address, when 160 CCNV members and friends were arrested in the Capitol Rotunda where they were demonstrating to win the use of federal buildings to house the homeless. The following month, Reagan ordered HUD and the Pentagon to prepare a list of suitable buildings, but it took until December for CCNV to obtain the use of the empty college, which the feds were planning to sell the following year. With more than 800 people using the building that winter, CCNV decided that they would refuse to get out when their “lease” expired on April 1, 1984.
Government officials extended the lease, but refused CCNV’s demand that the run-down shelter be renovated to make it decently habitable. On September 15, 1984, Snyder and other CCNV members began a fast that ended on November 4, with a federal commitment to transform the shelter with extensive repairs, thanks in part to the intervention of Susan Baker, wife of presidential aide James Baker.
According to Snyder, the feds have reneged on their commitment to rebuild; he wants to hold them to their promise of a “model shelter.” The government says it never contemplated the $10 million worth of work Snyder has demanded. CCNV has refused to let the government make a partial repair, and the feds have responded by opening a smaller shelter in the remote Anacostia section of the city, threatening to evict the hundreds who live at the CCNV shelter.
Snyder has warned that some shelter residents, including a number of Vietnam veterans, might become violent if the government tries to throw them out. He has gone to court to forestall the eviction, which could happen within days after a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals, which now has the case. Like the legal battle over the HUD report, the shelter dispute is, for the moment at least, a stand-off. — J.C.
The Federal Failure
Getting the Reagan administration to request funds for America’s homeless is an uphill battle, but Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, has a strategy. “Perhaps if someone could discover a Communist threat among the homeless…,” he said, Washington would be persuaded to take them seriously.
Although the administration is not exactly waging a war on poverty, the United States Armed Forces have already been pressed into service. In fiscal 1984, Congress gave the Department of Defense $8 million for the conversion of empty military structures into shelters for the homeless. When the Voice first called the Pentagon to inquire whether that $8 million had been used for homeless relief, press spokesperson Jim Trimmer said he “personally knew nothing about” that appropriation, explaining, “Eight million dollars is not very much around here.”
In fact, only $900,000 of the congressional appropriation was ultimately used to provide shelters; the remaining $7.1 million was “turned back into the Army Reserve funds, where it was used for [military] construction” according to another Pentagon aide, Glenn Flood. The small amount spent as intended created nine shelters in six states. Because DOD had used only $900,000 of the original appropriation, Flood explained, this year Congress appropriated just $500,000 — a far cry from the original $8 million which, although small by military standards, was significant enough to be mentioned in the HUD report on homelessness as evidence that “other Federal Agencies have also acted to address the issue.”
But the DOD program is not the heavy artillery in the federal government’s order of battle for the homeless. Over the past three years, Congress has allocated a total of $210 million to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide food and shelter to the homeless. These funds have in turn been distributed through agencies such as United Way and the Salvation Army. The money is spent primarily on cots, blankets and food. This distribution process is the administration’s showpiece aid effort, but FEMA itself has no desire to see the program become a permanent fixture, and has neglected each year to ask Congress to renew the appropriation. So far, no funds have been formally approved to continue the food and shelter program in fiscal 1986.
Indicative of the FEMA program’s makeshift nature and cosmetic intent is the fact that the appropriations have held steady at about $70 million a year over the past three years, despite documented growth in the numbers of homeless. Concern about the size of the deficit is ostensibly what has kept the funding unchanged, but the allocation process itself is arbitrary. “We determine funds by previous funding amounts rather than by statistics of need, which may or may not be accurate,” said Paul Thompson, a staff assistant to the HUD appropriations subcommittee of the House.
Given the dubious accuracy of HUD’s statistics, that might seem reasonable. Even the House appropriations subcommittee felt compelled to ask for a second opinion on the HUD report’s conclusions and ordered FEMA to prepare its own study last March. FEMA reported back that homelessness had increased by 16 per cent over the previous year. In September the same congressional subcommittee that had authorized the report ignored FEMA’s conclusions, blindly allocating the same sum as in years past.
Since Reagan took office, his administration has drastically cut the Section-8 federally subsidized low-income housing program. At its peak Section-8 supplied $3.2 billion a year to New York State, providing rent subsidies to 47,000 low-income families. The present level of funding is sufficient for only 8000 families — a cut of over three-quarters in the number of families aided. Other federal cuts include $5.2 billion from child nutrition programs, $4.6 billion from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, $1.8 billion from housing assistance programs, and $6.8 billion from the food stamp program. With the decrease in federal funding for these programs, the states have been hard-pressed to pick up the slack. According to HUD spokesperson Peter Centenari, “that’s what the Reagan administration bas been trying to do all along — to drive all of this back to the state and local level.” — Ellen McGarrahan