San Diego Union Tribune

October 22, 2003

Homeless first in line for vacant U.S. sites, but . . .

By Dana Wilkie

WASHINGTON On the Navy-owned Admiral Baker Golf Course near Tierrasanta, there recently sat an aluminum building about the size of a three-car garage. It was a rickety place with broken windows and thanks to a fire a blackened interior.

Though most would have considered this former storage shed unfit for a house cat, the Navy had to wait several months to tear it down while Washington decided whether it was a good place to put the homeless.

Federal law lets homeless advocates have first shot at property that federal agencies no longer need, and Washington each month considers hundreds of places as homeless shelters, even unlikely spots such as horse stables, dog kennels, chicken coops, lighthouses and old gas chambers.

In the end, after extensive paperwork and considerable staff time, it remains difficult to impossible for homeless advocates to inherit any property, even those places that might make good shelters.

Brian Sullivan a spokesman for the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department, or HUD, said a lot of surplus government property could be suitable for the homeless. But he acknowledged that most of it sits on active military bases and must be moved before the homeless can use it.

"As a practical matter, this is an expensive undertaking," Sullivan said. "Considering the costs involved, not to mention the extensive rehab to bring (the buildings) up to code, it's simply not cost-effective."

Some federal officials have grown frustrated with what is known as the McKinney Act, a 16-year-old law that requires the federal government to advertise surplus property before destroying it so homeless advocates can consider using it.

Federal officials spend considerable time and money inspecting, documenting and recording these properties, even when they know most of the work hasn't a prayer of helping the homeless, said one HUD official who asked not to be named.

"Any property that goes to the homeless is helpful," the official said. "But when you look at the number of properties published, and the number that can't be used, it just doesn't add up."

Sometimes, the property is impossible for the homeless to use the old gas chambers, stables, kennels, chicken coops, igloos, concrete bunkers, and even swimming pools. HUD officials once had to list a federally owned lighthouse in Maryland.

"The oddest place I ever had was a pedestrian bridge on the 32nd Street Naval Base," said Esther Ewell, the Navy's real estate team leader in San Diego, who last year listed 263 properties in Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada. "Just an old junky, wooden pedestrian bridge. I thought it was kind of a waste of time to have to do that. What would a homeless organization do with a bridge?"

HUD estimates that 98 percent of the property that is advertised belongs to the Defense Department.

Much of it is run-down and contaminated with lead paint or asbestos. While the property is technically "free" to homeless groups, the cost to repair it and move it off base necessary for security reasons is usually more than homeless groups can afford.

"In the 10 years I've worked here, I've only had one phone call from a homeless organization interested in property," Ewell said. "We were getting rid of some buildings at a golf course, and I told them if they had a way of transferring (the buildings) off base, we could work on it. I never heard back from them."

Before federal agencies demolish property, they send HUD a six-page form describing it. HUD then advertises the property in the Federal Register.

Last month, HUD advertised more than 7,000 properties across the nation for homeless use. That represents at least 42,000 pages of paperwork and an untold amount of staff time. (On Feb. 24 alone, HUD advertised more than 100 San Diego County properties available for the homeless all owned by the military and most in need of major repairs.)

Yet in the past year, Washington has received only 15 applications for the 7,000 properties and approved only five. Applications are typically rejected when a group lacks the reputation, money or nonprofit standing to run a shelter.

Laurel Weir, deputy director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said the McKinney Act has helped to house as many as 30,000 people at hundreds of properties across the country.

"For the groups that do get this property, it's very valuable, particularly as the cost of land rises," said Weir, who noted that HUD-advertised property is easier to get if it belongs to agencies such as the Veterans Affairs or Interior Department.

Still, even this property usually requires major renovations, and homeless groups typically don't win it without a struggle.

In Los Angeles, a group called New Directions in 1992 opened a 200-bed shelter at a former Veterans Affairs building. But it took several court battles and an act of Congress to get the property, which lies in west Los Angeles near several upscale communities.

"Although the (McKinney) Act existed, it was not an easy process," said Toni Reinis, executive director of New Directions.

Some military property does benefit the homeless.

In California, for instance, the homeless are using 14 properties on six former military installations. Much of it, however, was acquired nearly a decade ago, after the McKinney Act but before Congress under pressure from cities and counties that wanted more control over closed bases passed the Base Closure and Homeless Assistance Act.

Some believe the subsequent act gave the homeless less of a priority when competing for federal property.

In 1996, when homeless-services groups tried to win part of Point Loma's now-closed Naval Training Center, the city of San Diego instead paid the groups $7.5 million to relinquish their rights to the property.

"The people around (Point Loma) and even the city didn't want the homeless to be there," said one homeless services director who benefited from the payout. "They could make more money if the property got converted to other things."