Barb Poppe's remarks to the National Conference on Ending Family Homelessness

written by naehblog
February 19, 2010

Good afternoon. It is an honor to return to this conference and present my first official speech in my new capacity as Executive Director of United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. I cannot imagine speaking anywhere else since there are so many wonderful people in the audience who have inspired me and have poured their souls into ending homelessness. I would like to thank the National Alliance to End Homelessness for putting on another exceptional conference. I want to especially thank my dear friend, Nan Roman for her friendship and her tremendous leadership over the years on an issue we all so dearly care about. I would also like to recognize Mark Johnston the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Needs Assistance Programs at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and a member of the USICH Policy Group, as well as Ann Oliva, Director at the Office of Special Needs Assistance Programs at HUD.

For those of you who do not know me, I look forward to meeting you and engaging with you over the months and years ahead. I have more than two decades worth of non-profit experience working on homelessness with housing-related organizations. As a former board member and advisory group member of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, I’m very proud of the work they have achieved over the years and have been impressed by Nan and her team’s commitment to seeing our ultimate goal of ending homelessness come to fruition.

Since 1983, I have continuously been involved in the movement to end homelessness – it is my work and my passion. It is a movement that seeks to ensure that all Americans have a right to safe and affordable housing. Too often, this basic human need – the need for a place to call home – is not met.

As you know, widespread homelessness was not part of the American landscape when I, along with many of you, was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s. It’s a phenomenon that came to our consciousness in the early 1980’s. Other than during the Great Depression, homelessness did not occur on any scale in our country. What a sad state that our current generation – my son and daughter’s – believe that homelessness has always been with us.

As I have labored alongside you and many others in this movement, I have met thousands of persons – men, women, and children — who have directly experienced homelessness. For many, it’s a simple economic situation – they don’t earn enough to pay the rent. For others they have also experienced racism, sexism, classism, and prejudices related to their diseases of AIDS/HIV, mental illness, alcoholism and addiction. For some they have the further burden of a past criminal record. Each of them deserves a home.

It is their faces, their courage, and their struggles that inspire me to continue as their advocate. And that was what brought me to my current role as executive director that I assumed just three months ago. The mission of the Council is to coordinate the Federal response to homelessness and to create a national partnership at every level of government and with the private sector to reduce and end homelessness in the nation while maximizing the effectiveness of the Federal Government in contributing to the end of homelessness. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan is chairman of the Council, which includes 19 Federal agencies.

As many of you know, Secretary Donovan is very passionate about our mission and is tireless in his advocacy for resources and strategic approaches to make housing affordable and available to all. In fact, it was his speech at last summer’s Alliance conference that inspired me to seriously consider the opportunity to lead the Council. He said, “Our job now is to house everyone – to prevent and end homelessness. All homelessness.” I’ve met with him frequently over the past few months and he brings this passion, vision, and expectation of excellence to every meeting.

During my tenure at the Council, we will be focusing our work in these seven areas: They include:

  • Leading the development and implementation of the the first ever Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness that was mandated by the HEARTH act. This plan is due to Congress by May 20.
  • Establishing and maintaining effective, coordinated, and supportive relationships with each Federal agency
  • Organizing and supporting state/local/communities to effectively implement local plans
  • Developing means to provide an effective portal to federal programs and initiatives
  • Establishing and maintaining effective communications with Congress
  • Aggregating and promoting research/evaluations and manage accountability/results
  • Establishing effective partnerships with the public and private sector stakeholders

In order to accomplish these goals, I assembled a senior management team as of the first week of February 2010. The Council has three Deputy Directors who come with a complimentary skill set and areas of expertise. Two of the three are here with us today and I would like to introduce them to you:

Anthony Love is the Deputy Director for National Programs. He coordinates the state and local work of the council, overseeing the work of the Regional Coordinators. He also will be the lead on Veterans issues. Anthony most recently served as the President and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston and Harris County. He recently served on the Board of Directors of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans and the
NAEH also recently honored his previous organization and leadership with their Non-
Profit sector award in 2009.

Jennifer Ho is the Deputy Director for Accountability Management. She will lead the coordination of the Federal Strategic Plan process. She also will be the lead on health and human service related issues. Jennifer most recently was the Executive Director of the Hearth Connection since 1999. Hearth Connection is an innovative statewide non-profit intermediary that builds relationships, resources, infrastructure and public awareness to end long-term homelessness. She also recently served on the national board of the Corporation for Supportive Housing.

Sharon Price, who unfortunately can’t be here due to the inclement weather back East, is the Deputy Director for Policy. She coordinates the Senior Policy Group, the relationship with Congress, and National Advocates. Sharon previously served as the Director of Policy for the National Housing Conference. From 2001 – 2002, she was a Presidential Management Fellow at HUD, Office of AIDS Housing. She then worked in OMB, Housing branch (2002 – 2007) before joining NHC.

When the President took office, the economy was on the brink of a depression. The economic crisis required that we take immediate and extraordinary steps to prevent a further collapse. Not all of these steps were popular, but the President did what was right for our country’s future.

Without them, we faced the real prospect of a second Great Depression. A year later, the economy is back from the brink – and is growing again. But as every American family and business knows, we have much more to do so that every American who wants to work can find a job.

There is a significant correlation between the economic downturn and an increase in family homelessness. That is one of the reasons why the President has made passing a jobs bill a top priority. An increase in job growth will go a long way towards reducing homelessness.

Since the beginning of his Administration, President Obama has a made strong commitment to ending homelessness. In fact, he set a lofty but achievable vision of preventing homelessness across all populations, with Veterans as a priority. As a down payment on that vision, President Obama included $1.5 billion in the stimulus bill for the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing program. Then last May, the President signed into law the HEARTH Act which re-authorized the McKinney Act – it was a day that I was beginning to think would never come. And the President has now devoted significant resources toward that vision even during a tightening of not only the federal government’s budget, but among all of us including families who have been hardest hit by the economic downturn. Highlighting the importance of ending homelessness to the President and despite the non-security discretionary funding freeze, President Obama’s recent FY 2011 budget request for targeted homeless assistance programs is an 11.5 percent increase over FY 2010 and the largest ever by a President. The Budget proposal reflects a strong commitment by the Administration to prevent and end homelessness.

This Administration intends to forever change the way our country addresses homelessness. The Federal Strategic Plan will serve as a roadmap for joint action by Council agencies to guide the development of programs and budget proposals towards a set of measurable targets. The Federal Strategic Plan will reflect interagency agreement on a set of priorities and strategies the agencies will pursue over a five-year period.

The Council is centering its plan on the belief – the moral foundation – “no one should experience homelessness – no one should be without a safe, stable place to call home.”

The Council has charged the planning process to align federal resources effectively and appropriately toward four key objectives: 1) finish the job of ending chronic homelessness; 2) prevent and end homelessness among Veterans; 3) prevent and end family, youth, and child homelessness; and 4) set a path to ending all types of homelessness.

Solving homelessness will require that people at risk of or experiencing homelessness are able to access mainstream resources effectively and sufficiently to meet their needs. To date, the “federal plan” to address homelessness is by default defined by targeted programs. Today we are embarking on a “strategic plan” that will put at its center prevention of homelessness and bring mainstream resources to bear to prevent and end homelessness.

As we move forward with the Federal Strategic Plan, we are committed to collaborative solutions, smart investments, and leveraging mainstream resources. The effectiveness of the Federal Strategic Plan and ultimately its success is dependent upon all of us. It will take all of us … no one can stand on the sidelines. That is why we are involving so many in the work of developing the Plan. Not if, but when, we are successful in implementing the Federal Strategic Plan, I believe it will be an agenda that not only the Obama Administration can rally around, but the entire homeless advocacy community.

I want to take a moment to explain the process of the Federal Strategic Plan to all of you since your involvement is vital, our timeline is short, and I’ve only had a full staff for literally one week. Ultimately, the 19 member agencies of the Council will be responsible for ratifying the final plan. In the meantime, there are a number of steps that must be taken prior to ratification:

Workgroups of federal agency staff are meeting together to focus on goals and strategies for specific populations and areas to be addressed by the Plan.

  • The members of the USICH Senior Policy Council who are guiding the process have so far approved the working framework and development process for the plan. Research is being conducted to assess needs as well as current federal policies and known best practices.
  • External stakeholders are engaged in the discussion, offering ideas, feedback, research, and best practices. Over 250 consumers, advocates, providers, state and local governments, and representatives from ten-year planning bodies will be involved through online input, regional forums, and meetings held this week. We envision having nearly 1,000 participate by the end of the FSP process.
  • In late March, workgroups will make their preliminary recommendations to the Senior Policy Council.
  • Final recommendations will be made in mid-April. The Senior Policy Council and Office of Management and Budget must approve the Plan before it is forwarded for ratification by the full Council and delivered to Congress.

The May 20th submission to Congress is only the first step in what will be a challenging implementation process. The key will be the implementation from stakeholders ranging from the advocacy community, state and local, government, and the non-profit and private sectors.

Initial Wins

So why am I so hopeful that this plan will be successful? I have six reasons:

  • We are building on a foundation of recent success in reducing chronic homelessness.
  • We are learning about effective strategies to prevent homelessness and rapidly re-house people at risk of and experiencing homelessness through HPRP.
  • HEARTH implementation combined with significantly increased targeted homeless assistance funding is a strategic opportunity to strengthen and strategically re-align community systems of care.
  • President Obama’s Budget proposal includes new vouchers which are linked with services through HHS and Education that will not only provide critically needed housing with services – it will give us the chance to align three agency’s resources in a strategic manner and learn how to apply this more broadly.
  • VA Secretary Shinseki has established a bold mandate – end Veterans homelessness in 5 years.
  • We have not only the White House behind us, we have four Cabinet Secretaries who are committed to the vision that no one should be homeless. I’ve experienced their passion for this issue first-hand and have seen how their staff are working with the USICH and across “the silos” to make this happen. I’d like to put a little more substance to “my six reasons to believe” so that you too might become a ‘true believer’.

Point 1: As we all are well aware, in the last decade, our country made great progress in developing new approaches to tackle chronic homelessness. We focused our energies on combining housing and supportive services, which in turn has led to reducing the number of chronically ill long-term homeless by nearly a third. And despite the economic crisis, a recent report by the US Conference of Mayors showed that the number of chronically homeless individuals has remained stable and even declined.

Point 2: The same US Conference of Mayor report found that 18 cities—or 72 percent of respondents—reported that the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program will ‘fundamentally change the way [their] community provides services to people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness’. This was an important validation by our nation’s mayors since they are on the front lines every day in the battle to prevent homelessness and understand how critical a stable home can drive other outcomes such as savings in health care to the short and long-term effects homelessness has on children. I recently took an informal survey of how HPRP is being implemented – I applaud all the communities that have used the funds strategically. I encourage the rest of you who are in communities that are not using HPRP for strategic transformation to go back and push for it. We cannot squander this opportunity.

Point 3: Implementation of HEARTH will enable communities to better manage federal resources to prevent and end homelessness through more streamlined funding sources, more local control and creativity, and increased federal investment. The old school “ESG – aka Emergency Shelter Grant” will become the new school “ESG – Emergency Solutions Grant” which can be used for prevention and rapid re-housing as well as emergency shelter. There will be a new rural program and a broader definition of who can benefit from these resources. Smart communities will re-tool their crisis response systems and continue to prioritize permanent housing solutions. These investments in prevention and housing will create long-term savings in the costs of addressing homelessness.

As I mentioned earlier and it is worth repeating, President Obama’s recent FY 2011 budget request for targeted homeless assistance programs is an 11.5 percent increase over FY 2010 and the LARGEST ever by a President. There are a number of highlights in the President’s budget worth noting and they include:

  • To support implementation of the HEARTH Act, the Budget proposes a nearly $200 million increase in homeless assistance funding compared to FY 2010 to increase investment in evidence-based practices, support the shift of local homeless assistance systems to a performance-based orientation, and to better meet the unique needs of rural communities.
  • HUD has requested $2.055 billion for Homeless Assistance Grants in its FY2011 budget.
  • The President’s budget proposal also includes $4.2 billion in 2011 to reduce and help prevent homelessness among Veterans. That breaks down into $3.4 billion for core medical services and $799 million for specific homeless programs and expanded medical care, which includes $294 million for expanded homeless initiatives.

Point 4: There is a new proposal in the President’s Budget for HUD and HHS to combine 4,000 Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers and $16 million in HHS funding to serve chronically homeless individuals who are enrolled in certain Medicaid programs. The second component of this interagency collaboration consists of HUD, HHS, and Department of Education implementing a housing and services program for 6,000 families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. These two initiatives will not only provide critically needed resources, we will be able to acquire the knowledge necessary to bring mainstream HHS services resources into alignment with a mainstream HUD housing resource – we’ve talked about this for years – here’s a real opportunity to “knit” the services with the housing.

All of you working at the local level are essential to making this work. We will need service agencies including — State and County mental health, substance abuse and Medicaid agencies, State and County TANF agencies, as well as local school districts to step to the plate to be part of the HHS HUD voucher initiative. The Continuum of Care and Coordinating Committees for local plans to end homelessness are one of the few places in local communities where Housing Authorities – the agencies who will administer the new vouchers — regularly meet and work with these services agencies. I’d expect that intensive intervention and advocacy by people working to end homelessness will be needed to get these local agencies to start talking about how housing vouchers combined with services can be used to help families and individuals with the most difficult situations out of shelters, off the streets, and back into housing for good.

Actually there’s no reason to wait for the collaborative vouchers to become available, which best case scenario wouldn’t happen until well into 2011 – use turnover vouchers, use rehabilitated public housing units, use FUP and HUD-VASH vouchers, along with TANF, Medicaid, new SAMHSA grants for homelessness, new Health Care for the Homeless funding to put these collaborative local efforts into effect in 2010.

Point 5: In November, Secretary Eric Shinseki unveiled his five-year plan framework to end Veteran homelessness. It calls for leveraging the full range of VA housing, service, and benefit resources and expanding collaborations with other federal agencies, State Directors of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Service Organizations, and national, state and local social service providers and community groups. His goal is to have a “no wrong door” approach so that Veterans who seek assistance directly from VA’s programs, or from community partners or through contract services will be able to access the needed services. It will also include preventive measures like discharge planning for incarcerated Veterans re-entering society, supportive services for low-income Veterans and their families, a national referral center to link Veterans to local service providers, and the plan calls for expanded efforts for education, jobs, health care, and housing.

Secretary Shinseki’s plan, along with his and the President’s desire to put an end to a decades-old problem should be applauded. Moreover, I can report that after speaking with Secretary Shinseki that his Department is in full swing to make this plan a reality and he is very serious about our moral obligation to be successful.

Point 6: There is collective will within the Administration to bring the vision to reality. I nearly missed this conference due to remaining in Washington at the beginning of the week where we held our Council meeting despite the Federal Government’s closure on Monday. I am excited to report that three Secretaries – HUD Secretary Donovan, VA Secretary Shinseki, and HHS Secretary Sebelius – along with representatives from the other Council agencies attended. What was even more impressive in my eyes, than the dedication of the Secretaries to attend despite the snowstorm, was an incredibly productive meeting and a challenge by the Secretaries to ensure that the Federal Strategic Plan is as comprehensive as possible. I’ve been instructed to carry this charge to the Workgroups that are developing the plan. The order is clear – figure out how we can prevent and end homelessness. And figure out how we can do it sooner, not later.

A few years ago, I read an essay by a student that was posted on a bulletin board at Fifth Avenue Elementary School in Columbus. The assignment was part of the school’s celebration of Martin Luther King Day and a reflection on “I have a Dream”. While other students dreamed of big screen TV’s and new toys, she wrote, “I dream of living in a beautiful home where people don’t shoot at each other.” The simplicity of her dream took me aback. Every time I hear a discussion revolving around equal opportunity and equal rights, I’m always reminded that fundamentally we must include the right to safe, decent and affordable housing among those rights we hold most dear. The vast majority of us have worked hard to see this become a reality.

To quote my new big boss and the President of these United States, “It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get to where we are today, but we have just begun. Today we begin in earnest the work of making sure that the world we leave our children is just a little bit better than the one we inhabit today.”

In all of my years working to end homelessness, I have never been more hopeful of the possibility to put an end to it. Many of us have made sacrifices over the years and toiled many long nights to assist those who so dearly needed our helping hand. Many of you know my husband, Bill Faith who heads COHHIO, a statewide housing advocacy group in Ohio – is one who has labored for housing and economic justice. This dream and hope of ending this vicious cycle is within our grasp and that is why my family made the personal sacrifice to have me venture from Ohio to Washington to help the President see this vision through. It comes down to commitment – not just by the President, the Administration, nor Congress, it is up to each of us – it is up to you. We can only achieve this longstanding goal that all of us have labored for years on – by working together to achieve it.

I’m excited to work with all of you in the weeks, months, and years ahead as we seek to make this dream a reality.

On behalf of the Obama Administration, thank you for all of the hard work you do day after day to make this country a better place for all of us. Thank you very much for listening today. And thank you again to the National Alliance to End Homelessness for inviting me to be here.