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Annual Conference - Secretary Donovan's remarks
July 30, 2009
Prepared Remarks for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Annual Conference
Thursday, July 30th, 2009
Thank you, Nan – for that introduction, for your remarkable leadership with the Alliance, and, above all, for the bedrock commitment to end homelessness you have impressed upon five different HUD Secretaries. I look forward to continuing our work together.
I want to also thank your board, particularly Co-Chairs Susan Baker and Mike Lowry. And I want to note the HUD team here helping us address homelessness – Mark Johnston, our Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Needs, and Ann Oliva, who heads up our Office of Special Needs Assistance Programs.
And of course, many of you know Fred Karnas – Fred is a senior adviser and has been critical in our Recovery Act efforts, including working with Mark and Ann quickly distributing the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing funds that so many of you made possible.
Will all of you stand up?
I want to also acknowledge the work of the Pete Dougherty, the interim executive director of the Interagency Council on Homelessness, and the USICH staff, many of whom are here today.
But most of all, I want to thank everyone in this room who labor day in and day out to help the millions of men, women, and children in our nation who experience homelessness.
In the best of times, it is hard work.
In times like these, it is nothing less than the work of angels.
So, thank you.
Three years ago, The New Yorker ran an article that most of you are probably familiar with.
It was called “Million Dollar Murray” and it chronicled the story of an ex-marine who, for well over a decade, was a fixture in the part of Reno, Nevada that tourists rarely see: its shelters, emergency rooms, jail cells, and backstreets.
Like too many of our nation’s homeless population, Murray Barr died while still homeless, still on the streets.
Indeed, his story reminds us that each of us is here today for the same fundamental reasons:
Because we believe that a civilized society does not allow someone to live like that.
Because a civilized society doesn’t allow someone to die like that – alone, on the streets, with no hope, no chance for a better life.
But as much as Murray’s story was a cautionary tale – it was also one of affirmation.
Today, not only do we know we can do better by the long-term homeless, like Murray – because of you, we are doing better.
I witnessed this for myself in New York City, where as Commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, I worked with groups like Common Ground, who day-after-day systematically debunked one of the most corrosive myths that even well-meaning people have long held:
That some people want to be homeless.
It led to a twisted sort of logic – that if government couldn’t house and improve the health of those living on our streets-visibly ill and suffering-who could we help?
Well, together, we showed them. By developing the “technology” of combining housing and supportive services-delivering permanent supportive housing via a targeted pipeline of resources- we’ve “moved the needle” on chronic homelessness, reducing the number of chronically ill, long-term homeless by nearly a third in the three years since “Million Dollar Murray” was published.
The fact is, we have now proven that we can house anyone.
Our job now is to house everyone – to prevent and end homelessness.
That is what the Alliance has fought for in communities across the country – and it’s time that the Federal government not only supported those efforts, but took the lead.
And here’s why. For the general public, Murray Barr’s story captured something this audience is all too familiar with:
The cost of homelessness – not only in the dollars we spend as taxpayers, but also in the terrible price individuals and families experiencing homelessness pay when we spend those dollars in a disjointed, fragmented way.
It wasn’t that the system wasn’t spending enough money on Murray. As the title of the article suggests, the bill paid by the local, state, and Federal government reached seven figures.
Nor was it that no one cared about Murray. In fact, when he died, police officers in Reno gave him a moment of silence.
Think about that for a moment – city police officers, bowing their heads in silence in honor of a homeless man.
From cops and social workers to doctors and nurses, a lot of people cared about Murray Barr.
What was missing wasn’t money.
It wasn’t compassion.
What was missing was leadership – leadership that recognized when we harness public resources and the enormous wellspring of human capital in this country we can provide everyone-from the most capable to the most vulnerable-the opportunity to reach their full potential.
Today, as our nation’s fifteenth HUD Secretary and the new chair of the Interagency Council on Homelessness, I want to talk about how President Obama and I intend to realize that vision.
First, I want to talk about how we can and must work together-as partners-to put the Federal government back in the business of building and preserving affordable housing.
Secondly, I want to talk about forging a federal strategy for ending homelessness that builds on what you have done at the state and local level, thanks to the leadership of the Alliance and my predecessors at the Inter-agency Council.
Thirdly, I want to talk about how I believe our single greatest opportunity for implementing that strategy is through the reform of our nation’s health care system.
And lastly, I want to talk about the scale of our collective ambitions, our belief in ourselves and what I believe we can accomplish in the weeks, months, and years ahead with a shared sense of commitment and collaboration.
HUD’s Role in Preventing and Ending Homelessness
Of course, tackling any problem requires getting the most accurate picture of the problem. And thanks to research by people like Dennis Culhane, Martha Burt, Ellen Bassuk (BAA-sek), to name a few, we know far more about the causes, demographics and dynamics of homelessness than ever before.
I certainly don’t need to tell you that not everyone who experiences homelessness is like Murray – a single adult struggling with substance addiction and mental illness.
Far from it – indeed, the 650,000 who are homeless on any given night and the more than 1.6 million Americans who experience homelessness at some point every year are as diverse as America itself. While some are scarred by war, others are women with children fleeing domestic violence. Still others are youth aging out of foster care or are perhaps unable to stay with family hostile to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
And increasingly, we are seeing families falling into homelessness whose incomes have plummeted as a result of the recession – through foreclosures, evictions, layoffs, or health care costs. And with a 56% increase in rural and suburban family homelessness-we see that homelessness is not simply an urban problem, but one every kind of community struggles with.
In light of this rapidly shifting economic environment, HUD recently launched our new Quarterly Homeless Pulse Report, which tracks real-time changes in homelessness in nine geographically diverse areas of the country.
We hope to expand this effort in the coming months, to better gauge the impact that both the economic crisis and our programs are having on homelessness across the country. And as our eyes and ears on the ground, we will need your help – data from your communities to help us bring the picture of homelessness into sharper focus.
Despite all the diversity among people experiencing homelessness that our tracking systems reveal-why people become homeless and where-every member of America’s homeless population does share one thing in common:
They lack access to housing they can afford.
Ensuring they have that access is our challenge at HUD. And I welcome it.
You and I both know that before there was a foreclosure crisis in this country, there was an affordable rental housing crisis. And it’s still going on.
It is no coincidence that the re-emergence of widespread homelessness during the recession of the early 1980′s took place as our nation experienced a precipitous loss of our nation’s affordable housing stock. Cities across the country lost hundreds of thousands of units, leaving a tremendous chasm in housing stock affordable to the very poorest that we are still trying to climb out of.
Well, we won’t be making that mistake again.
President Obama’s Recovery Act, along with HUD’s Fiscal Year 2010 budget, offer the clearest statement in a generation that the Federal government intends to get back into the business of affordable rental housing.
The $14 billion HUD is investing in our communities through the Recovery Act included $4 billion for the public housing capital fund, to address the nation’s 1.2 million units of public housing.
It included $2 billion to reestablish our bedrock commitment to full funding of Project Based Section 8 developments, so that we’re not driving owners to opt out and losing precious housing we so desperately need in these times.
It included $2.25 billion in HOME funding to stabilize projects financed by the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit – the major engine of affordable housing production for the past two decades.
Our FY 2010 budget builds on these investments. At the same time we begin making progress on the enormous backlog of public housing renovation needs with the Recovery Act, we are aggressively ramping up the federal commitment to the assisted housing stock in our budget – both through a major preservation bill making its way through congressional committees and through our Choice Neighborhoods proposal to build on the successes of HOPE VI.
Our budget also increases funding for the Housing Choice Voucher program by $1.8 billion. As a result of years of short-funding and raiding reserves, we have seen the number of vouchers in use fall, and even some families terminated from the program.
We are committed to making sure that this does not happen in the current fiscal year – and to putting the program on a sound footing going forward.
Lastly, HUD’s FY 2010 budget includes $1 billion to capitalize the National Housing Trust Fund. And I want to reaffirm our commitment to ensuring that when Congress finalizes its budget, this funding will be included.
As New York City’s Housing Commissioner, I oversaw the largest local affordable housing plan in American history, to create or preserve 165,000 affordable homes for half a million people – more than the entire City of Atlanta.
That’s the scale of ambition we need nationally – and realizing it starts with the National Housing Trust Fund.
“Mainstreaming” the Ending of Homelessness at HUD
Of course, HUD has a leading role to play in reinventing the homeless system itself. During the early 1980′s, a part of our response to the rapid growth in homelessness was to build needed emergency shelters – shelters that HUD still supports and will continue to for the foreseeable future.
But today, our challenge for families dislocated by the current economic crisis is to do everything in our power to make sure they spend as little time as possible in those shelters.
Thanks to all of you, the Recovery Act also included $1.5 billion in Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing funds to make that possible – funds I saw working for myself this past Monday at a Catholic Charities Homelessness Prevention call center in Chicago.
I’m also proud that our FY 2010 budget includes a $117 million increase in McKinney-Vento homeless assistance grants – the linchpin of the federal response to homelessness.
But if the last 8 years proved anything, it’s that real progress requires far more than increases to HUD’s homeless assistance account.
We also need to make preventing and ending homelessness a measure of success for all of HUD’s programs.
I am asking my Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Needs, Mark Johnston, to lead a comprehensive review of HUD’s “mainstream” programs-public housing, Section 8 and major block grant programs like HOME and CDBG-to ensure they are working in an integrated way toward preventing and ending homelessness.
To use the terminology the Alliance has made so familiar to all of us, I am committed to making sure that we at HUD do everything within our power to “close the front door to homelessness and open the back door to permanent housing.”
And it’s time we did.
Taking Homeless Prevention Beyond HUD
While every homeless individual or family needs affordable housing, for some, we know it’s not enough.
In addition to help paying the rent, many people need education and job training, child care and child welfare services, treatment for substance abuse, mental illness, or HIV/AIDS or any other assistance in a broad range of supports that ought to be provided by a good and decent society.
For a quarter century, we’ve known that ending homelessness is bigger than any one agency or level of government.
And by “we” I mean people like Maria Foscarinis for whom I had the privilege of interning fresh out of college, while she was at the National Coalition for the Homeless.
In fact, I interned with her in 1987, the year McKinney-Vento was signed into law.
And I hope I can be your good luck charm again, Maria.
Indeed, as much as the McKinney-Vento Act has accomplished, it was originally conceived by Maria and others as a multi-agency demonstration program.
The idea was simple – that the “research and development,” so to speak, on effective strategies to meet the needs of the homeless, would yield technology we could incorporate into mainstream programs across the Federal government.
Two years ago, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, led by Maria, spearheaded an effort to mark the 20th anniversary of McKinney-Vento. And of course, earlier this year, the HUD portion of that historic law was reauthorized by the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act.
Led by congressional champions like Senator Jack Reed and Chairwoman Maxine Waters, HEARTH consolidated the agency’s homeless funding streams, increased emphasis on homeless prevention, and expanded HUD’s definition of homelessness.
But even as we implement HEARTH, the time has come to fully realize the inter-agency vision so many in this audience championed for McKinney-Vento more than twenty years ago.
Unlike the Moon Landing celebration a little more than a week ago, I don’t think any of us want there to be a 40th anniversary of our efforts to end homelessness if we can help it.
That’s why I’m proud to be taking over as chair of the Inter-Agency Council on Homelessness from my colleague, General Shinseki – who did a great job helping us transition the Council to the new Administration.
Working closely with the vice-chair, Secretary Solis at the Department of Labor and Melody Barnes and Derek Douglas at the White House Domestic Policy Council, we are close to naming an executive director as we develop a federal strategy.
Indeed, just as the Alliance has galvanized states and localities around the country to create plans of their own to end homelessness, the time has come for the Federal government to do the same.
On behalf of the Obama Administration, let me state as clearly as I can: we will develop and implement a federal strategy to prevent and end homelessness.
I believe the mission of the Interagency Council is simple:
To bring as many partners as possible to the table – at the local, state and federal levels to prevent and end homelessness.
Indeed, our first job will be to build on and strengthen existing partnerships such as HUD-VASH, which addresses the housing and service needs of homeless veterans.
With veterans comprising 15 percent of America’s homeless population, more homeless Vietnam-era veterans today than troops who died during the war itself, and some of the 1.6 million Americans who deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan already living on our streets, the need is crystal clear.
As HUD-VASH shows, new partnerships often require a new way of doing business that can be challenging at first. But I’m pleased to report we are making good progress, not only allocating an additional 10,000 Housing Choice vouchers for homeless veterans but also through creative use of Recovery funds to house these veterans more quickly.
It’s that kind of persistence we must bring to our second task, forging new interagency partnerships across the Federal government.
Last Friday, President Obama announced $4.35 billion in funding to transform our education system. Across the country we’ve already seen that the correlation between successful housing and good schools is no longer theory – it’s practice.
Education Secretary Duncan and I are exploring how we can work together to ensure that all children of pre-school and school age have the stability of a safe, affordable home where they can learn, grow and thrive.
Together, we’re committed to moving beyond timeworn debates that pitted vulnerable populations against each other, so that families who we can all agree need assistance from both our agencies, get the help they need, when and how they need it.
Using the Housing Platform to Drive Health Care Outcomes
But I believe there is no bigger opportunity to prevent and end homelessness than through partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services.
Secretary Sebelius and I are in discussions to link HUD’s housing work with HHS programs to address a broad range of issues from homelessness and aging in place to unnecessary institutionalization and designing more livable, healthy communities. We want to connect homelessness, public and assisted housing programs with Medicaid and Medicare services, and HHS’s major block grant programs – and have each designated senior staff to recommend how we can.
As important as that work is, it simply sets the stage for the role housing, homeless policy and HUD can and must play in the health care reform debate.
This crisis has been illustrative. We already know that simply having 46 million uninsured people in this country clearly contributes to persistent and widespread homelessness.
In addition, health care costs are the leading cause of personal bankruptcies – with almost half of all foreclosures caused in part by financial issues stemming from medical costs.
So there’s no question that health care reform will have a significant impact on families who are at-risk of homelessness, by preventing that financial catastrophe from happening in the first place.
But let me talk for a minute about what you have to offer the debate over health care happening right now.
The epicenter of that debate is how we can reduce the soaring cost of health care at the same time we make sure that every American can get the health care they need.
Well, the truth is, there are few platforms better suited to improving health outcomes and reducing costs than housing.
This audience has long understood the connection between permanent supportive housing and major savings in our health care system.
But with the publication of not one but two articles and an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association within the last year, the rest of the country may finally be catching on.
One of those articles centered on Seattle’s 1811 Eastlake supportive housing project, run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center. The researchers studied 75 of the center’s chronically homeless residents – half of whom had serious mental illness and all of whom struggled with alcohol addiction.
In the year before participants in the program entered supportive housing, the 75 residents collectively spent more than 1,200 days in jail, and visited the local medical center more than 1,100 times at a cost to Medicaid of more than $3.5 million.
In the year after participants entered 1811 Eastlake, days spent in jail were cut almost in half. Medicaid costs had dropped by more than 40 percent.
Because hospital visits had dropped by almost a third.
Another study in Chicago reached a similar conclusion. Housing assistance provided to homeless patients suffering from HIV/AIDS or other chronic illnesses made medical services that were available so much more effective that the days in the hospital dropped 42 percent, days of required nursing home care dropped 45 percent, and most critically of all, the number of emergency room visits dropped 46 percent.
That’s what I call “bending the curve.” If you bend it any further, it might well snap in half.
In fact, it is this kind of data that encouraged Republican governor, George Pataki, and a now-formerly-Republican mayor, Michael Bloomberg, to enter into NY/NY III, a billion dollar investment to create 9,000 new units of supportive housing in New York City.
And while the data is somewhat less developed around homeless families, we know from the research of Dr. Bassuk (BAA-sik) and others that homeless parents and children are significantly less healthy than their housed counterparts.
Indeed, the CHIP program that President Obama and Congress expanded earlier this year has clearly demonstrated the stabilizing effect insuring children can have on family circumstances and cost savings alike.
Simply put, if we want to tackle health care reform-if we want to lower costs-we must tackle homelessness.
It’s that simple.
That doesn’t mean it will be easy. Just as a challenge can bring us great opportunity – great opportunities challenge us.
As Carol Wilkins laid out in a series of papers with the Corporation for Supportive Housing a few years ago, Medicaid has often been a challenging resource for permanent supportive housing providers to access.
So, why should we bother? Why should any housing or service provider consider affiliating with Medicaid? Or Medicare for that matter?
Because, quite frankly, it’s our greatest chance to make the biggest difference for the most people – to move the needle on all of homelessness.
I think most people would be shocked to learn that someone like Murray Barr-with no home, no job, and major health issues-would not necessarily have qualified for Medicaid. Nor might Medicaid necessarily pay for the kind of services he so clearly needed.
That tells us that just as supportive housing is an ideal platform for advancing cost savings in the country’s health care system – the health care services that are only provided by publicly-funded programs like Medicaid and Medicare are essential to preventing and ending homelessness.
And I know that is precisely what motivates the Medicaid Demonstration Program the Alliance, CSH, and others are working to include in health care reform as we speak.
As much as these partnerships will test us-and they will-passing this test will pay dividends for decades to come.
Ending Homelessness In Our Time
It comes down to our commitment.
Just as some say we can’t afford to reform our health care system, so too do they claim we can’t afford to end homelessness.
But if the example of Million Dollar Murray, the tens of thousands of homeless people like him, and the resources we are already committing tells us anything – it’s that we can’t afford not to.
Whether it’s reforming our health care system or preventing and ending homelessness, the fundamental question is the same:
It’s not one of ability – rather, it’s a question of will.
It’s a question of whether we believe in our ability as Americans to do great and important things.
I mentioned the moon landing earlier. Forty years ago, The New York Times described it as “the realization of centuries of dreams, the fulfillment of a decade of striving, a triumph of modern technology and personal courage, the most dramatic demonstration of what we can do if we applies our minds and resources with single-minded determination.”
“The moon,” the article continued, “long the symbol of the impossible and the inaccessible, was now within our reach.”
So, too is ending homelessness.
I believe that if we can spend trillions of dollars addressing these problems the wrong way – surely in America, with government working in partnership with the private sector, we can summon the strength and the courage to do it the right way and achieve the results we all want for our country.
And if I know anything from working with so many of you over these many years, it’s that the experience of homeless housing and service providers is not only ready for prime-time in the greatest public policy debate of our generation – it is absolutely essential to making sure that debate reaches its right and just conclusion.
In the coming days, our collective goal is to make sure it is. Thank you.