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Ben Carson's 'signature' HUD initiative has gone nowhere

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Ben Carson
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson speaks in Washington in September. -
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Pablo Martinez Monsivais AP file
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Last June, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson traveled to his hometown of Detroit to unveil his "signature" initiative: one-stop shops for social services known as EnVision Centers in 17 communities nationwide. The centers were described in lofty terms as "centralized hubs" offering low-income residents "support services that can help them achieve self-sufficiency."

But eight months later, not one has opened and the program remains mired in confusion and bureaucratic tangles, according to interviews with HUD officials and staffers for nonprofits and housing authorities that have been designated as EnVision Centers.

Some critics say the program appears to be little more than a rebranding of work that was already underway.

"No one actually knows what they are supposed to do," said Chad Williams, executive director of the Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority, which includes Las Vegas where the affordable housing crisis is severe. "I was approached to run one, and I said: 'What does it do? Where's the funding?'"

Williams says he declined to participate after finding out there was no money attached. "EnVision Centers are a failed policy perception," Williams said. "I guess they give the image that HUD is doing something."

The concept of government-sponsored one-stop shops offering a range of social services is not new. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations had them.

HUD officials suggested that the Trump administration version is struggling to get off the ground because of bureaucratic red tape. Public housing directors and nonprofit organization staffers interviewed by NBC News pointed to HUD having provided no funding or staffing for the initiative.

As part of the June rollout, HUD said the EnVision Centers would "leverage public-private partnerships" with organizations such as federal agencies, local governments and nonprofit groups. The Envision Centers would be on or near public housing complexes and would offer services focused on employment, education, health and leadership.

But the program ran into trouble even before the June news conference.

Carson touted the Envision Centers during an event at the Boys & Girls Club in Detroit in December 2017. "We want them to know when they're feeling down and out — or even when they're not feeling down and out — that there is a place that they go to," Carson told The Detroit Times.

But the event backfired when the club's leadership decided the program was not a good fit. The press release announcing the initial rollout has been removed from HUD's website.

"It sounded great on paper," said Shaun Wilson, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Southeastern Michigan. "But after the due diligence and understanding what resources were needed to make it successful, we decided not to pursue it."

Some housing advocates have criticized Carson and his staff for focusing on a legacy project when the nation is facing an affordable housing crisis.

"We need bold leadership to call for and advance ambitious solutions to the shortage of homes affordable to the lowest income people," said Diane Yentel, executive director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "Instead, Secretary Carson pursues EnVision Centers to increase 'self-sufficiency,' a continuation of his misguided and harmful approach of blaming poor people for their poverty."

HUD spokesperson Raffi Williams told NBC News that none of the centers is officially open because housing officials are still hosting local "roundtables to solicit input from community leaders, local residents and potential service providers about the unique needs of their community." Williams said the input will be used to inform what services are provided.

Carson has personally promoted the work of the EnVision Centers in speeches, Cabinet meetings, congressional testimony and at least 20 media interviews.

But a source close to Carson said even the secretary himself is not pleased with the program's progress and hopes new staff might turn it around.

"Secretary Carson is not happy about the lack of progress being made on EnVision Centers," the source said. "The secretary is confident that recent staffing changes will ensure greater progress on this initiative."

"It's not a new building. ... It's a new name"

Staffers at seven proposed centers around the country told NBC News the work appears to be largely a continuation of previous nonprofit and housing authority services, only with a new designation.

Other centers declined comment, telling NBC they were told to forward all media inquiries to HUD headquarters in Washington.

One center at a former Detroit high school has an impressive renovation that boasts a gym, a pizzeria and an apprenticeship program for electricians. But the building's development predates the EnVision Center designation, according to Chris Lambert of the nonprofit organization Life Remodeled.

Lambert said the designation brings a "credibility boost" to fundraising, but his group's website doesn't even mention it.

Lambert acknowledged that he's still cautiously optimistic about the HUD partnership. "This is what HUD says they're going to do, and we're going to hold them accountable," he said.

At the Inkster Housing Commission west of Detroit, the center is less ambitious. It's not much more than a small community space used to host two meetings a week, according to executive director Paul Bollinger.

"We're still in the infancy of this. It's not a new building, not a new environment. It's a new name," he said.

Bollinger says six computer stations are expected to be set up for homework-help and job searching in the next three to four months. But he said there are no plans to add staff from federal agencies. Still, HUD "has been incredibly supportive giving us contact information for federal partners," Bollinger said.

A center in Spokane, Washington, set to open in March appears to align closely with the original HUD vision. The new center aims to connect those in need with housing, transportation, child care, employment and training services. But the project was underway before HUD offered the label.

"This concept came along and aligned with what we were working on," said Mark Mattke, CEO of the Spokane Workforce Council in Washington state.

A senior HUD official blamed the program's slow progress in part on government bureaucracy.

"Launching a new and innovative federal initiative takes time — there are procedural hurdles that government agencies face," the official said. "Bureaucracy slows the process down. We are building an initiative that will help transform low-income communities by improving residents' abilities to achieve their American dream — you can't do that with the snap of the fingers."

Though there isn't much to show for its efforts yet, HUD has devoted agency resources to the development of the Envision Centers.

A phone app, announced more than a year ago, was created to showcase the centers. But while the app provides links to government agencies, it does not indicate where the centers are located.

HUD has also funded the travel of a politically appointed staffer who was scheduled to attend roundtable sessions in 13 locations across the country this summer, according to a source familiar with the Envision Center initiative who works with low-income communities and did not want to be identified.

Carson's 2017 calendar obtained by NBC News from the watchdog group American Oversight as part of a FOIA lawsuit shows Carson had at least six meetings to discuss EnVision Centers with senior staff in 2017.

In describing the centers in June, Carson told a Detroit television station: "There's a verse in the Bible that says, without a vision people perish. There have been a lot of people who have really lost a vision of the promise of America."

But some of the organizations designated as partners for the EnVision Centers offer services that seem outside the core mission of helping low-income Americans achieve self-sufficiency.

One such group is the Colorado-based Space Foundation, which marketed its services to the centers, including a "virtual audience with an astronaut," at the cost of $7,000 for a single two-hour session.

The group says it would like to help HUD's partners secure outside funding for its programming, adding that it has not settled on any rate with HUD for its services or performed any work so far. "We see the EnVision Centers as a path to future opportunities," said Rich Cooper, a spokesman for the Space Foundation.

Another national partner is dFree, an organization that describes itself as "a transformational, lifestyle movement" that helps people "achieve financial freedom through faith-based guidance." The nonprofit held a webinar in November for HUD staff where it described the group's church-based roots, according to dFree founder and CEO DeForest B. Soaries Jr.

But Soaries insisted that the group has broadened its mission to include secular "values-based" programming that maintains a "separation of church and state."

Despite the lack of money attached to the centers, staff in multiple locations said they were grateful simply for the increased visibility that comes from a HUD designation.

"We're already doing what the EnVision Center is describing," said Neli Rowland, of Chicago's Safe Haven, adding that she is excited by the affiliation.

"Every administration has brought up the concept of breaking down the silos," she said. "We haven't seen any administration has been able to achieve that."