Speaking before a crowd of about 85 in Luce Hall yesterday, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez championed President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiatives program, which would give federal money to religious community service organizations.

Martinez, a Cuban-born lawyer from Orlando, Fla., extolled the virtues of public service as he described how he rose from poverty to live the American dream. He spoke yesterday as a Chubb fellow for public service.

While housing for low-income Americans remains his department’s primary goal, Martinez said he has placed a renewed emphasis on combatting the nation’s homelessness problem. He said HUD plans to continue its partnerships with organizations like Habitat for Humanity, but will begin reaching out to organizations that use a “religious message” to achieve their goals.

Although the federal government has made efforts to reduce homelessness, Martinez said, the number of people still without homes has remained constant. He said he wants to end “chronic homelessness” in the next 10 years, comparing that goal to President John F. Kennedy’s announcement in 1961 that the United States would land a man on the moon within a decade.

Even if his goal is not reached, Martinez said, enough progress will be made that the effort itself will be worthwhile.

As an example of a specific HUD program, Martinez cited the reactivation of the Interagency Council on Homelessness — which provides grants for job training, temporary housing and the creation of new homeless shelters — and the doubling of the council’s annual budget.

He also spoke about the American Dream Downpayment Program, which gives loans to people who cannot afford homes on their own, even with other voucher programs.

“[This] approach can and will make a difference,” he said.

After touring New Haven earlier in the day, Martinez praised the city Housing Authority — once one of the country’s worst — for its recent improvement under Yale Law School professor Robert Solomon.

Martinez also called on the audience to join in his efforts to improve the community. After telling personal anecdotes about building houses along the Mexican border and helping a woman get her first home, Martinez spoke directly to the audience, encouraging those present to help the surrounding community.

“I call you to a life of service,” he said.

In nominating Martinez for HUD secretary, Bush called his immigration from Cuba at the age of 15 — without any knowledge of English and without a place to stay — “the embodiment of the American dream.”

The Chubb Fellowship, which brought Martinez to Yale, is dedicated to helping Yale students further their interest in the operations of government and in public service. The program was established in 1936 through the donation of Hendon Chubb 1895 and is based in Timothy Dwight College. Former Chubb fellows have included current Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman and author Toni Morrison.

–Staff Reporter James Collins contributed to this story.

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