THE NUMBERS are nearly unprecedented in this country: In the wake of hurricanes Rita and Katrina, perhaps 500,000 to 900,000 people are homeless and likely to remain so for months, if not years. Some have been financially wiped out; others cannot afford to repair their damaged homes. Still others cannot return to the Gulf Coast because their jobs no longer exist. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has made huge efforts and spent billions of dollars trying to assist those with nowhere to go.

Unfortunately, those efforts have so far been wasteful, ham-handed and oddly self-defeating. Over the past several weeks the agency has rented overpriced cruise ships on which few evacuees wanted to live; has promised to spend billions on trailer parks destined to become dead-end "FEMAvilles" far from urban centers and jobs; and is still paying $8.3 million a day in hotel bills.

Although it took a surprisingly long time, the agency has come to the obvious conclusion that helping evacuees to rent the estimated 1 million empty apartments across the southeastern United States will provide a better long-term solution than hotels or trailers. Nevertheless, the agency -- or, more likely, the administration -- remains oddly reluctant to use existing programs, most notably the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 8 housing vouchers, the traditional tool used to help poor Americans rent apartments. Although not ideal in every way, HUD vouchers get paid directly to landlords, reducing the possibility of fraud, and they are designed to vary in cost to account for rental markets in various cities.

Rather than use them, FEMA has invented its own housing subsidies. Those who qualified for HUD assistance before the hurricane will receive vouchers, but they are less flexible than Section 8 vouchers, making it harder for evacuees to move, pay utility bills and cover higher rents in more expensive cities. Meanwhile, those receiving a housing subsidy for the first time have simply been paid a lump sum of $2,358 for three months' rent. FEMA has said it will be possible to receive further aid -- up to 18 months' rent -- but the criteria for doing so are disturbingly vague. Barbara Sarda, a housing expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, points out that to be successful, welfare and poverty programs -- which these are, whether FEMA wants to say so or not -- must have clear criteria that can be easily implemented by officials on the ground. This plan does not.

FEMA is right, of course, to be careful of how much it promises, and to be wary of creating anything that looks like a gigantic new housing subsidy program. But that is precisely why it is so strange that, instead of expanding an old program on a temporary basis, the administration has insisted on coming up with a new one, both flawed and open-ended, from scratch. Could it be because this administration, which was trying to cut Section 8 funding before the floods, simply doesn't want to admit that traditional anti-poverty programs sometimes work?