After food, shelter is the most basic human need, yet America - the world's leading industrialized society - still has trouble meeting that need.

Many young families in the United States cannot scrape together enough money for a downpayment on a house. Even more pressing, 38 percent of the 16 million U.S. renter households with annual incomes below $15,000 spend more than half of that on rent. And hundreds of thousands more cannot afford rent and must sleep in homeless shelters, in doorways, on park benches, in cars.Housing solutions won't be cheap, and, even worse, they will compete with each other. As Congress divvies up money to address the problems, choices will be made where to allocate more money or less money.

One focus of the battles will be the homeowner income tax deduction. As economist Anthony Downs notes, it is the most significant source of money for housing. Yet the size of the deduction rises with the size of the house, so the rich benefit more than the poor. Pressure to eliminate or at least trim the deduction is mounting.

Another benefit likely to be debated is the Veterans Administration loan guaranty fund, which has required $1.7 billion in appropriations since 1984 to stay afloat. The extent to which the nation can keep subsidizing VA housing is an open question.

President Bush and his Housing and Urban Development secretary, Jack Kemp, should be commended for their willingness to look at a wider range of housing options than did the Reagan administration. Kemp has expressed interest in enterprise zones, sale of public housing to occupants, rental assistance vouchers and urban homesteading.

But the bottom line - and the test of Bush's commitment - is money. Those dollars must come from somewhere, and the new president must lead out in seeking to get them from other programs or from higher taxes.

The president talked during his campaign about wanting "a kinder, gentler America." The minimum definition of that must be an America that can shelter its people from the cold on a winter night.