Michelle Obama: Ending Veteran Homelessness an Audacious, Achievable Goal

written by Steve Berg
June 5, 2014

I’m more hopeful all the time that, by the end of 2015, the number of veterans who are homeless will be strikingly low. Yesterday I had the honor of participating in an event at the White House that I believe marked the beginning of the final push to end veteran homelessness. At the event, First Lady Michelle Obama announced the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness.

I had never seen Michelle Obama speak in person before. Now that I have, it’s clear to me that she will be a powerful and persuasive voice for this effort. (Video of the announcement is embedded at the top.) She spoke not just about the “moral outrage” of tens of thousands of veterans being homeless, but also about all the progress we have already made toward what she called the audacious but achievable goal of ending veteran homelessness by the end of 2015.

Mayors, she said, “are best equipped to tackle this challenge because they know their communities inside and out, and they’re in touch with service providers who know these veterans by name.” During her speech, she announced the commitment of 77 mayors, four governors, and four county officials to meet that goal, and called on other mayors and local leaders to make the same commitment.

Once her speech was over, the audience of around 200 mayors, city staffers, national leaders and others moved to a briefing room in the Eisenhower Building to hear a panel of experts discuss best practices on ending veteran homelessness, and the challenges mayor’s offices have had to overcome.

Themes that arose from the discussion included:

  • The importance of brokering agreements that ensure that the most intensive interventions go to veterans with the most severe housing barriers;
  • The need to implement rapid re-housing in an effective manner to drive the numbers down;
  • Securing the cooperation of the community, particularly landlords and employers, in efforts to house homeless veterans.

Next was a panel of mayors who are participating in the Mayors Challenge. These were men and women who have already achieved impressive results for their cities, including Ralph Becker from Salt Lake City and Annise Parker from Houston (click here for a full list). During their discussion, they emphasized the need for mayors and city leaders to:

  • Clearly articulate the goals to keep people focused;
  • Build partnerships with landlords, law enforcement, local Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) staff, and employers; and
  • Assign competent and dedicated staff to work on the issue.

Eight years ago I appeared before a Senate hearing and said that the country needed to take three big steps to solve the problem of veterans homelessness:

  1. Expand the range of program models that are available;
  2. Fund these program models at the level necessary to serve every veteran who becomes homeless; and
  3. Pull together efforts in each community to identify every homeless veteran and use these resources to get him or her housed.

With the expanded funding we have seen for HUD-VASH and SSVF, the first two steps have been accomplished. The Mayors Challenge, along with a lot of other work that’s going on, looks like it could be the key to taking that third step.

Take a look at HUD’s website page on the Mayor’s Challenge to find out more about this initiative. If your mayor hasn’t made the commitment, let’s talk about how to rectify that situation!