The trouble at Fannie and Freddie has Reed looking elsewhere for a funding source. And in a tight year, with pressure on Congress to control exploding debt, he will have competition for any available resources. But he has support in high places: the Obama Administration has put $1 billion for the fund into its budget.

The money, which would mark a modest, but important addition to the federal investment in affordable housing, comes at the recommendation of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan – a former New York City housing chief who, by all accounts, brings to the office a new level of engagement on the issue.

One of the early signs of heightened interest in homelessness came last year, when President Obama signed a stimulus package that included the first major federal investment in homelessness prevention – some $1.5 billion to cover back rent, utility bills, and landlord mediation for those on the verge of homelessness.

The fund, which included nearly $7 million for Rhode Island, also helps the newly homeless get back into housing quickly, covering security deposits and moving expenses.
Another Reed-led effort, the first major rewrite of the federal government’s main anti-homelessness law – the McKinney-Vento Act – in 20 years will continue that emphasis on prevention.

And it is sure to get play in a new plan to end homelessness that is due out of the administration May 20. Reed says he also expects an increased focus on providing health and other services for the newly housed, ending veterans’ homelessness, and using data to track progress.

For policymakers who feel they finally have a handle on how to solve one of the nation’s most vexing, and galling, problems, it has come down to this: analyzing the data, tweaking the approach, putting up the money.

But in a nation with an affordable housing problem of grand dimensions, the stepped-up efforts of the federal government represent, at best, a good first step. And for all the optimism surrounding housing first, there are skeptics. Even among the ranks of homeless advocates.

Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, says that despite gains on chronic homelessness in many communities, the problem has remained a stubborn one in the era of housing first. And in the meantime, he argues, a focus on this relatively small sliver of the homeless population means a shelter system serving a broader range of people has gotten short shrift.

It is an argument that finds some echo locally. Debbie Johnston, director of the McKinney Shelter in Newport, bristles at all the talk of closing shelters with the expansion of the permanent housing stock. “I wouldn’t be down with that at all,” she says. “I think we’re going to, on one level or another, always need a shelter.”

It is a persistent and powerful idea: homelessness will always be here. Or at least for the foreseeable future. And for housing first advocates, this notion may be the most significant obstacle they face.

But they flat out reject the idea. In a nation that has grown accustomed to seeing people on the streets, it is easy to forget that 35 years ago, before the economic crisis of the late-’70s and early-’80s struck, homelessness was but a minor problem in this country.

With some leadership, some money, and some imagination, advocates insist, Rhode Island can make it all but disappear.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at

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