Take Five! Q & A with Steve Hilton

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Expert Q & A | July 1, 2009

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Steven Hilton
President and CEO, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation

What is the newest issue emerging in homelessness policy?
The current economic crisis is obviously placing a severe financial strain on millions of individuals and families, and making sure they do not fall into homelessness is one of the greatest challenges we are facing. With billions of dollars in federal funds going toward homelessness prevention over the next few years, we have a great opportunity to create an effective prevention and diversion system. Today, far too many people get stuck in the homelessness system. We need to do a much better job of moving people quickly into permanent housing or, better yet, keep them from becoming homeless in the first place.

What issue in homelessness policy should everyone be reminded of?
We remain very concerned that there are more than a hundred thousand chronically homeless individuals every night in the U.S. Not only are these people among the most vulnerable in our society and in need of our help, they represent by far the greatest costs to society. Focusing on this problem by increasing access to permanent supportive housing has shown promising results across the country in recent years, but we still have a long way to go. In Los Angeles, for example, we still need more than 20,000 permanent supportive housing units to house the chronically homeless. Our foundation remains committed to working with a broad array of partners to make sure the day comes when we see that goal reached.

How did you start working about the field of homelessness (or housing)?
In 1989 (20 years ago!) our foundation board held a retreat at which the directors were asked to create a list of various humanitarian needs that aligned with the mission of the Hilton Foundation to help alleviate human suffering. One of the areas which the board selected as a priority was homelessness, later more narrowly defined as the chronically homeless – that is, those most resistant to moving into housing, often as a result of dealing with multiple challenges such as mental illness, drug abuse or both. The decision to focus on the mentally ill homeless aligns closely with Conrad Hilton’s Last Will and Testament in which he advised: “Love one another, for that is the whole law;” so our fellow men deserve to be loved and encouraged – never to be abandoned to wander alone in poverty and darkness.

In addition, Conrad Hilton left behind one of the largest and most successful hotel companies that provides shelter to millions of guests each year, so it seemed a perfect fit for the Hilton Foundation to support housing for those without a place to sleep.

Our first major investment into the homeless issue was in 1992. The Hilton Foundation joined forces with several other funders including the New York Community Trust and the Ford, Pew and Robert Wood Johnson Foundations in approving $4 million over four years to the Corporation for Supportive Housing to assist the chronically homeless in New York City.

Where do you draw your inspiration?
I am fortunate to have been born in America – a country that offers one of the highest standards of living in the world. Further, having grown up in a family with wealth was an additional blessing. It is shameful to see the numbers of chronically homeless on the streets of Los Angeles where I live, or anywhere else in this country. Allowing people to live on the streets is completely unacceptable in a country that has so much wealth. Even taking into consideration the impact of the recession, America is still the world’s largest economy. Finally, I believe that the American people are among the most compassionate and giving people in the world. And if people are presented with practical, cost-effective solutions to the tragedy of homelessness in America, they will respond from the heart.

Why do you think ending homelessness is possible?
While poverty has long been with us, homelessness as we know it today is a relatively recent phenomenon. With the appropriate political values and dedication of resources, it is entirely possible that we can make sure that everybody in our country has a place to call home. Several studies have shown that the cost to provide long-term supportive housing is not much more than if nothing is done and these individuals access the services of emergency rooms, psychiatric hospitals, and prisons. From that perspective, if it costs essentially the same to provide supportive housing, why not do the humane thing, the right thing, and help those living on the streets regain their dignity. As others have said more eloquently than I, to the extent we allow such a horrendous existence in plain sight for all to see, we as a people erode our own moral and humanitarian integrity, which diminishes who we are as a nation.

Further, I am constantly inspired by the countless committed and creative people who work and volunteer to help rid our communities of homelessness. Most of all, I am inspired by the courageous people who I have met over the years who have personally overcome disabilities, addictions, discrimination, and financial crises to move from the streets to a safe place to call home.

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