RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Homelessness is on the rise with more than 580,000 people in the U.S. without a place to live, and that number is expected to grow. Yesterday, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge was picked to lead the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which will coordinate the Biden administration response. Fudge told NPR it will be very different from that of the prior administration. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: President Trump's approach to homelessness will be remembered mostly by what he said. On a 2019 trip to California, he called homeless encampments there disgusting and threatened to send in the federal government to sweep them off the streets. He never followed up, but his comments set the tone for a response that many homeless advocates found tepid and counterproductive. HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge says the Biden administration will be much more focused on getting people housed.
MARCIA FUDGE: The good thing about where we stand today is that we've already taken a major, giant step by putting resources in place through the American Rescue Plan - $10 billion.
FESSLER: Money that will be used to provide more housing, as well as vouchers for some 70,000 people at risk of homelessness. Fudge notes that Biden's also asking for billions more in infrastructure spending to increase the supply of affordable housing.
FUDGE: There is now a commitment that was never there to the degree that it is today.
FESSLER: And that's encouraging to those like Eric Tars, legal director for the National Homelessness Law Center. Tars is worried about the increasing criminalization of homelessness by communities that are frustrated with the growing number of people living on their streets.
ERIC TARS: We were thrilled from day one with this administration affirming that housing is a basic human right.
FESSLER: And he's especially happy with the administration's endorsement of a policy called Housing First, which means getting people into housing before you address the issues that made them homeless in the first place.
TARS: Everybody should be able to agree that the data shows that if you provide housing to people, it costs two to three times less than cycling them through emergency rooms and jails and courtrooms.
FESSLER: But not everyone does agree that Housing First always works. Candace Gregory is president and CEO of Open Door Mission, which provides homeless services in and around Omaha, Nebraska.
CANDACE GREGORY: You know, the real root causes of homelessness aren't addressed by just a house.
FESSLER: She says the people she deals with need a lot more, like mental health counseling and job training, to stay off the streets.
GREGORY: Many of our men and women and families that are experiencing homelessness also have experienced, prior to homeless, trauma in their lives.
FESSLER: But she says with Housing First, such services aren't always available. Fudge says she can't guarantee the communities will get everything they need right away but calls what the administration has requested so far a down payment.
FUDGE: It's not like we're going anywhere. We'll come back the next time and get more.
FESSLER: She adds that one silver lining of the pandemic is that it's made everyone more aware of how serious the problem of homelessness has become. Lisa Glow, CEO of Central Arizona Shelter Services in Phoenix, agrees. She says the pandemic has also forced groups like hers to come up with more creative solutions, like moving homeless seniors into vacant hotels.
LISA GLOW: So my hope is the Biden administration will build on that momentum, and I believe that they will, to help us not only get more affordable housing but build more options for people who are becoming homeless.
FESSLER: She also hopes local providers will have more say in how the money is spent. Fudge says her agency's already consulting with mayors and other officials on the best approach and that as far as she's concerned, it's all hands on deck. Pam Fessler, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.