Take Five! Q & A with Adolfo Carrion, Jr.

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Expert Q & A | May 7, 2010

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Adolfo Carrión, Jr.
Director, White House Office of Urban Affairs Policy

What is the newest issue emerging in homelessness policy?
We are closer than ever to closing the holes in our safety net that leave too many Americans homeless. One of the key advances in homelessness policy is the acceptance that housing programs and a full complement of services should work in tandem, in order to mitigate the harsh effects of homelessness on families and individuals. The Administration’s approach is to combine affordable housing, rental assistance, prevention and rapid-re-housing with the full complement of services, such as health and education.

This effort calls for an inter-agency task force, led in part by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which will leverage each federal agency’s programs, break them out of their silos, and approach homelessness in a holistic manner that reflects the complexity of the issue.

What issue in homelessness policy should everyone be reminded of?
People should be reminded that homelessness is a complex issue that is much larger than just providing affordable housing. Homelessness policy can no longer be about addressing the symptoms and trying to contain their spillover. This is true not only of homelessness, but of poverty and economic dislocation in general. That’s why President Obama has charged us with lifting federal agencies out of their comfortable silos and working in a coordinated way to enact a place-based development strategy that addresses the full complexity of our challenges and aspirations.

Whether it’s a homeless individual or family, federal policy will now address the issue with the full complement of agencies that touch every aspect of the problem.

This means, addressing the underlying causes of homelessness at their root. The places where people live, whether urban, suburban or rural, must be rich with opportunity for economic and social development and physical and mental wellness, supported by a strong safety net that catches those that fall and quickly and efficiently returns them to stability.

How did you start working about the field of homelessness (or housing)?
I have been personally touched by homelessness in my extended family, with cousins who came home from Vietnam, severely affected by the scars of war. Like so many others, they had difficulty reintegrating into the mainstream. They came home to a period of radical social change and an unappreciative nation. Drugs, alcohol abuse and mental health issues led to unstable family and economic arrangements that resulted in homelessness. It took a long time for some of them to recover, one never came home, and two others lost their lives to the streets and drugs, just a few years after their return.

In my work as a planner and a local elected official, I was driven to address this issue, not as an attempt to contain and isolate the problem, but as a way to restore individuals to their families and their communities, with the knowledge that we had failed a generation, and could no longer sustain this failed approach.

Where do you draw your inspiration?
My inspiration comes from the experience and perspective of my parents. My father and mother came to New York City from Puerto Rico in the 1950’s. They came without their parents, to join older siblings and be part of the strong manufacturing sector that offered opportunity to so many as a gateway into the American middle class. They worked hard, learned English, and despite suffering workplace and housing discrimination, let alone the difficulties of social and cultural adjustment and integration, never lost hope in the enduring promise of the American Dream.

This may sound cliché to some, but for my family it’s not. In one generation we went from parents with little formal education to all four kids graduating from graduate school and going on to successful professions. I have no doubt that my kids will achieve and contribute even more to the American enterprise. This is what keeps me going: that you can go from a sub-basement apartment in a 1960’s Brooklyn ghetto to working for the President of the United States in one generation. We need to make sure every kid has this kind of opportunity. But every time we let a family fall through a broken safety-net, what falls down is our promise and potential. We must strengthen the social safety net in America.

Why do you think ending homelessness is possible?
The irrepressible and innovative spirit of the American people has proven time and time again that no challenge is too great. When Americans are fed up with a problem, they will take a stand. That’s exactly what the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) has done. They are leading an ambitious campaign to engage all sectors of society to confront and overcome homelessness, and do it in a decade. The Obama Administration supports this effort and has made unprecedented investments to address homelessness. We can do this.

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