Take Five!  Q & A with Henry Cisneros

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Expert Q & A | August 28, 2006

Henry Cisneros
Chairman, CityView
Board Member, The National Alliance to End Homelessness

What is the newest issue emerging in homelessness policy?
I think that the breakthrough in thinking is Housing First, an approach that provides housing first and then, after people are stably housed, services that address other issues which come with being homeless and living below the poverty level. We have seen great success with this approach in San Francisco, Columbus, and New York City, and those of us working in this field need to continue to highlight the successes of a strategy that has proven to work.

What issue in homelessness policy should everyone be reminded of?
The thing we can never forget is the complexity of problems that homeless people confront: health issues, substance abuse, mental illnesses, broken spirits, a lack of capacity to solve their shelter problems. It is a Gordian knot of complexities too often dismissed. We need to remember to incorporate responses to those problems even as we provide housing first so that we provide effective support and treatment. We also need to find more effective ways to bring people in from the streets into our housing and treatment systems.

How did you start working in the field of homelessness (or housing)?
As Mayor of San Antonio I had some experience with homelessness, but by far the most direct responsibility came as Secretary of HUD, where I made addressing homelessness a priority. A trusted advisor said to me as I was about to become Secretary that the first responsibility of the Secretary who heads the Federal Cabinet Department whose very name begins with “Housing” is to address the needs of those Americans who are completely “unhoused.” I have remained committed to addressing homelessness ever since. Even now, when I speak about affordable workforce homeownership, I always say first that housing those Americans who are without housing of any kind must be the first step in any Federal, state, or local housing strategy.

Where do you draw your inspiration?
I get my inspiration from two places. On one hand, seeing the plight of the homeless, I am unable to ignore their needs. In San Antonio, I see people under freeway overpasses, under bridges, and on the streets constantly. The other inspiration is the knowledge that there are heroic people that dedicate their lives to serving the homeless. It is heart-breaking, high intensity, demanding, exhausting work which is done all over the country. I admire, respect, and want to support those people.

Why do you think ending homelessness is possible?
I think we can reduce homelessness to a trickle, where there are far fewer than the 850,000 people that are estimated to be homeless in our country on any given night. We can reduce homelessness to a tenth of that or less. Homelessness should be a rare and temporary condition for people who suffer personal setbacks, are sick, or who fall between the cracks of the system. It should not be an accepted norm in America’s cities. It is not an acceptable way for a civil society to function.

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