Take Five! Q & A with Commissioner Robert V. Hess

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Expert Q & A | April 30, 2007

Commissioner Robert V. Hess
Department of Homeless Services, New York City

What is the newest issue emerging in homelessness policy?
In cities across the country, there continues to be a wage gap between the ever increasing rent levels, tighter housing markets and low-end wages that just aren't keeping up. The new issue may be the recognition it's not all about figuring out how to get people from entry level, minimum wage jobs to living wage jobs. There's such a large gulf now we may have to think creatively of ways to create a mixture of increasing income opportunities and housing subsidies for those who can’t afford housing. The housing subsidies don't necessarily need to go on forever. Lifetime Section 8 housing vouchers may not be the best answer for everyone.

What issue in homelessness policy should everyone be reminded of?
First and foremost is economics. Too often people focus on mental health or substance abuse issues. A significant portion of the American population has experience with substance abuse, some form of mental illness or both. They remain housed because they have the economic wherewithal to do so.

How did you start working in the field of homelessness (or housing)?
I was asked to look at the issue of homeless veterans on the streets of Baltimore city. At the time, I found the local response to homelessness in general there to be lacking.

Where do you draw your inspiration?
I draw my inspiration from the courage, survival instincts, skills and the determination of the men and women living on our streets and in our shelters. Despite the incredible barriers they face every single day, they continue to have hope.

Why do you think ending homelessness is possible?
Ending homelessness is possible because I watched thousands of people move from homelessness to homes. I have the experience of being able to reduce the number of people on the streets by two-thirds or more in Philadelphia. Some had been on the street, in some cases, for years, and others in shelter, in some cases for years. I prefer to focus on what is possible, not what the naysayers say can not be done.

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