Among the many problems the Biden administration is facing is a surge in homelessness. More than 580,000 people in the U.S. were homeless at the beginning of last year, prior to the pandemic. The number is expected to grow this year, especially if a federal eviction moratorium ends on June 30 as scheduled.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge told NPR in an exclusive interview that the administration is committed to housing as many people as possible and preventing an explosion of homelessness in the months ahead. She was selected Thursday to chair the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which is coordinating the government's response.
"It is a top priority not just of mine, but of the president and the vice president. One of the first things that they said to me was that we're going to make homelessness, and the eradication of homelessness, a priority in this administration," says Fudge. "We want every single person, no matter their station, to find a way to get out of, not just off the streets, but even out of shelters."
It's a tall order with millions of Americans behind on their rent and a severe shortage of affordable housing. But Fudge notes that the administration and Congress have already taken some big, initial steps to address the problem.
The recently enacted American Rescue Plan includes $10 billion to provide more affordable housing and services, as well as 70,000 emergency vouchers for families that are either homeless or at risk of homelessness. The aid comes on top of more than $45 billion in emergency rental assistance to help low-income tenants avoid eviction.
Fudge notes that the administration is also requesting billions more in spending and tax incentives in its infrastructure and budget proposals to further increase the supply of affordable housing. Congressional Republicans are objecting to such a steep increase in spending and passage is very much up in the air.
Still, the HUD secretary insists, "there is now a commitment that was never there before to the degree that it is today. And so whatever it takes, we are willing to do."
This is music to the ears of homeless advocates, who found the Trump administration's homelessness policies tepid and counterproductive.
"We were thrilled from Day One with this administration affirming that housing is a basic human right," says Eric Tars, legal director for the National Homelessness Law Center. His group has been especially concerned with the growing criminalization of homelessness by communities frustrated with the rising number of individuals living outside.
That approach was encouraged by President Trump, who referred in 2019 to homeless encampments in California as "disgusting" and threatened to send in the federal government to sweep them away.
He never followed through, but he later fired the long-time director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and replaced him with an advocate for encouraging homeless individuals to seek shelter by making living outside more uncomfortable.
Housing advocates are also happy with Biden's recommitment to a policy called Housing First, which means getting people into stable housing first and then addressing the issues that made them homeless in the first place. That approach has been widely adopted by communities around the country over the past decade.
"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," says Tars.
But not everyone agrees with the Housing First approach. The Trump administration faulted it for causing an increase in the nation's unsheltered population and called instead for making permanent housing contingent on people first addressing other problems, such as substance abuse.
"You know, the real root causes of homelessness are not addressed by just a house," says Candace Gregory, president and CEO of Open Door Mission. Her group provides shelter and other homelessness services in and around Omaha, Nebraska.
Gregory says many of the people they deal with need additional help, such as mental health counseling and job training, to stay off the streets.
"Many of our men and women and families that are experiencing homelessness also have experienced, prior to [becoming] homeless, trauma in their lives," she says.
But funding for such services isn't always available, says Gregory, even though the Housing First approach envisions giving people such support.
Fudge says she can't guarantee communities will get everything they need right away, but she calls the money that's been approved so far a "down payment" and says the administration will likely seek more in the future.
"I said, and I very much meant, that no person that lives in this nation should sleep on the streets or under a bridge or by a waterside. We need people to have shelter," says Fudge.
The secretary admits that there are many obstacles to achieving that goal besides the lack of affordable housing. One of the main ones is overcoming NIMBYism or the "not-in-my backyard" attitude of those who don't want low-income housing in their neighborhoods.
"We do not want to allow people who we think are not people we approve of to live in our neighborhoods," Fudge says is the sentiment of many when it comes to building more affordable housing. "We have the resources to fund it, to get it started, but it is just getting people's minds wrapped around the fact that as Americans we all need to help each other."
Fudge says the pandemic has helped by exposing the extent of homelessness in communities across the country. "As a result of that, we are in a better position to talk about the needs, because now everyone can see the problem. It's not invisible any more. It's not just in some neighborhood that we never see," she says.
Lisa Glow, CEO of Central Arizona Shelter Services in Phoenix, agrees. She says the recent increase in those needing help has also led groups like hers to come up with more creative solutions, such as moving homeless seniors into vacant hotels and providing small amounts of aid to keep people from losing their homes.
"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," she says.
Glow hopes that local providers will also be given more say on how the money is spent and that the federal government will "support us in shoring up those local solutions that we have found to be effective during the pandemic."
Fudge says her agency is already meeting with mayors and other officials to find out how best the federal government can help and that, as far as she's concerned, it's all hands on deck.