homeless youth funds: HHS diverts $7 million to Year 2000 Fix FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Fri, 5 Jun 1998 18:35:30 -0700 (PDT)


http://washingtonpost.com:80/wp-srv/WPlate/1998-06/05/116l-060598-idx.html


  PUTTING COMPUTERS AHEAD OF TEENS
  HHS TO USE MONEY MEANT FOR HOMELESS ON YEAR 2000 FIX

  By Barbara Vobejda and Stephen Barr
  Washington Post Staff Writers
  Friday, June 5, 1998; Page A29


Scrambling to find money to fix its computers' Year 2000 glitch, the
Department of Health and Human Services has unearthed an unlikely source of
funds: grants to help homeless teenagers.

HHS Secretary Donna E. Shalala notified members of Congress this week that
she was transferring $7 million from a program designed to help young
people living on the streets, shifting it instead to reprogram agency
computers.

That news triggered immediate protests not only from advocates for the
homeless, but from Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill.

"They talk about the Year 2000 problem, but what about the 1998 problems
for our kids?" said Vincent Gray, executive director of Covenant House in
Washington, an agency that had applied for $100,000 in grant money so it
could hire more workers to comb the streets for homeless and troubled
teenagers. "It's difficult to understand an argument to sacrifice kids for
computers."

HHS officials argue that they are not eliminating any existing programs --
the $7 million was an expansion of an existing program. Grants will delayed
a month or so into the next fiscal year, when new funds will probably be
appropriated by Congress.

"By delaying this just a month, there will be no effect on the programs,"
said Michael Kharfin, a spokesman for HHS. "This is a balance between two
immediate, pressing needs."

But advocates for the homeless counter that, timing aside, $7 million in
funding will be spent this year on computers instead of vulnerable youths.

"I hear the bureaucratic argument," Gray said. "But I know an entire year
of funding will be lost as a result of it."

The HHS proposal even drew a rebuff from Republicans. "We took a look at it
and decided the appropriate action was 'return to sender,' " said John
Raffato, spokesman for Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens
(R-Alaska).

HHS is also planning to transfer $3.5 million from "community economic
development" grants, which are used by local governments to create jobs and
provide job training for low-income people.

The "street outreach" for homeless youth is part of a program created in
the 1994 crime legislation to help community groups move teenagers and
young adults on the streets to shelters, medical care and other services.
More than 100 community groups submitted applications recently to compete
for $8 million in new funds appropriated for the program and were expecting
to hear soon on the results.

Under HHS's plan, $7 million of the $8 million would be diverted to fixing
the computers.

For several months, HHS has been behind schedule on repairing its Year 2000
computer problem, making it one of five troubled departments drawing
special attention from the White House and Congress. HHS officials have
contended they needed congressional help in forcing contractors to move
faster on fixing the agency's computers.

The Year 2000 problem stems from the use in many computer systems of a
two-digit dating system that assumes that 1 and 9 are the first two digits
of the year. Without specialized fixes, the systems will recognize "00" not
as 2000 but 1900, a glitch that could cause the computers either to shut
down or malfunction on Jan. 1, 2000.

Upset about the diversion of money from the youth program, Sen. Tom Harkin
of Iowa, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee
that oversees HHS spending, said the agency "denied the seriousness of the
[computer] problem and then failed to adequately plan a fix."

John A. Callahan, the HHS assistant secretary for management and budget,
defended the department's approach.

"We are . . . taking aggressive steps to move the money to the contractors
so they will have the fiscal wherewithal to do the work," he said.

Other agencies, though, have moved faster than HHS to find money for Year
2000 repairs, congressional aides said. The Internal Revenue Service has
shifted about $50 million and the Federal Aviation Administration has
obtained extra funding from Congress.

Callahan said HHS was sticking by its plan to shift money from homeless
children, but also held out the possibility there "could be some
modifications from where we raise the money. . . . That decision will be
made within the next several days."

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