Remarks by HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo
National Alliance to End Homelessness Conference
July 24, 1998
I have a number of people from HUD who are here with us today.
I'd like to point them out. These are the faces who will make
all these programs work and make the Department work. These are
the names you hear bandied about when the application is late,
who would have ever written this in the first place. Premiere,
off the racks. Jacquie Lawing, Deputy Chief of Staff.
Followed by the man who followed me in the transition, where
we actually did something to the bureaucracy when we talked about
doing something, Fred Karnas. We have an extraordinary civil
servant who really has taken these homeless programs and actualized
the new vision and dream, continuum of care, and very much the
vision that we have gotten from you, and that is John Garrity.
We have with us Father Joseph Hacala, who worked the campaign
for human development and is starting a new division in HUD, a
new office at HUD, which is just for not-for-profits interface
and community based corporations. If you look at HUD, institutionally,
we deal with local governments, city/state government, and we
deal with public housing authorities, but there was no institutional
seat at the table for not-for-profits.
Not-for-profits are very much the whole movement in this field
over the past ten years - why don't we have a seat at the table
for not-for-profits at HUD? Why don't we institutionalize that
relationship, and that's Father Joseph Hacala. Father?
We also have with us the woman who communicates all of this to
the outside world, the Acting Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs,
We have been together for many years and you have heard this
topic generally from me and from everyone else through this conference
and before, so maybe the best use of time is we could have some
questions and some dialogue and we find out what's on your mind
and see if we can respond to it.
Let me start - because this is such a special opportunity when
we are altogether like this - with a couple of basic points, general
points, and then we will go from there.
The point is this. I was thinking about it coming back from
Alaska on the plane - which is a long plane ride, trust me. I
was speaking two weeks ago to a friend of mine who has a daughter,
a young daughter. She came down and introduced me to the daughter
eight years old. I had been down here for about five years.
She looked at me, and she said, your nose isn't as big as it is
on TV. Almost as big.
She was a little tickled, and she said, I know what you do, you
are the Secretary of the Housing. That's right. Eight years old,
she had all the questions. My friend said, well, ask the Secretary
the question you wanted to ask. This eight year said, why are
there homeless people?
When you had to come up with the answer for an eight year old,
it becomes a very tough answer. My mind went through two answers,
quickly. First answer was, well, first possible reason, we have
homelessness for a number of reasons. Number one, we have de-institutionalization,
this great idea, we were going to supply the mental institutions
within community-based facilities, except we forgot to build the
We went to build them and these neighbors said, no, we don't
want any community-based facility here, okay, never mind, bad
They had already come out of the state-run mental health hospitals,
which were terrible, and now they had nowhere to go, so they wind
up on the street and it caused the institutionalization of homelessness,
that was a tragedy in public policy, and we blame the people who
are on the streets. That's one of the reasons.
Another reason is something called domestic violence. Women
who flee the home because they are beaten, period. That's all
there is. They have nowhere to go. We don't recognize it as
a problem. We don't say this domestic violence is a terrible,
terrible problem nationwide, the numbers are staggering. We don't
say that. Why? Because we have to look into the mirror and say
something about ourselves that we are not comfortable saying.
We abuse women in this country with regularity. Physically abuse
them, mentally abuse them. We don't want to say that. It hurts
us. It's too damning upon us, so we don't say it and domestic
violence just goes on
and once in a while, there's some
discussion, but no real program, no real policy.
That's why we have homeless people, because you have a minimum
wage in this country that doesn't allow people to work, pay their
rent and eat. That's why you have homeless people.
You have homeless people because we missed the entire boat on
welfare reform, because we sat in this town and we said we reformed
welfare because we signed a bill. We did it. We told those people
no more AFDC, the gravy train is over, now you are going to have
to get up and work. We did it. We reformed welfare. It was too
much and too long, those people on welfare, sitting on the couch
making babies, taxpayers subsidizing the whole fiasco.
We did it, we reformed welfare. You did nothing when you signed
that welfare reform bill. Nobody ever wanted a welfare check.
Nobody ever wanted to be on AFDC. They wanted the same thing
everyone else in this nation had, which was opportunity and decency
and jobs, because they wanted to work, and we signed a bill that
said 'You shall go from welfare to work.'
It does nothing. There's transportation to get the person from
welfare to work and the education to get the person from welfare
to work and the job at the other end of the bus line to get the
person, too. You haven't focused on that because that would require
an intelligent government, affirmative government, investing in
people, and you don't want to do that.
That's why we have homeless people and because you don't build
houses. Another great flash. When you don't build affordable
housing, people become homeless. That's what we have learned,
and we don't build affordable housing in this nation.
How many new units of affordable housing will this great Congress
provide this year? Net new affordable housing. The federal government
provides housing, not state government, not city government.
Federal government does housing. How many net new units? New,
meaning you build new ones every year.
The net is the difference between how many you lose and how many
you gain. How many net new will we build this year from the federal
government? How many net new units?
I'll give you a hint because we're friends. In the 1970's and
the 1980's, we built about 200,000 units per year, Section 8,
public housing. About 200,000 units per year in the 1970's and
the 1980's. Through all those years, through all those economies,
through all those different Congresses, how many units this year?
Who has the number?
SECRETARY CUOMO: None. Who said none? Stand up here. Zero.
Zero net new units. How can that be? How can you be providing
zero net new units, you provided 200,000 - 300,000 in the 1970's
and 1980's, today it's zero.
Well, maybe you don't need any new housing. Maybe the market
is so good, the economy is so strong, that you don't need any
more affordable housing because it's working very well. Let the
market work, let the market work, let the market work, for the
Maybe, except that's exactly wrong. The need for affordable housing
in this nation today is at the highest ever; 5.3 million Americans
need housing, so you have the highest need in history. HUD's annual
study says 5.3 million, says Harvard University, says the Center
for Budget Policy Priorities, highest need and the lowest production
That's what the gift is that this Congress has given this nation,
the highest need and the lowest production in history. No other
Congress in the history of the nation, since they started keeping
numbers, has been this visible where it was zero, where it was,
literally, zero. No excuse, with the strongest economy in history,
strongest economy in history.
H.R. 2, the public housing bill, says of the existing new units
you now have, they should go to working families who make $40,000
per year. What lunacy is this? We are not building new housing,
highest need in history, waiting list across the nation, and you
want to take the existing new ones and give them to a working
family earning $40,000, at the expense of a family who makes nothing.
Under what theory? We used to have a federal preference for
homeless families. Homeless families went to the top of the list
and they got the unit first. They took away that preference.
They even said you were on the list wherever you were, if you
happened to be number 424, it didn't matter. Now they are saying
number 425, which is below the homeless family, is making $40,000
per year, they are going to the top of the list over a homeless
Well, we don't want concentrations of poverty, we want mixed
incomes, because that's a healthier community, and by the way,
why should we be penalizing people who work? You shouldn't be
penalizing people who work, but you shouldn't be penalizing people
who are poor and homeless either.
Why else are people homeless in this nation? Because racism
is very much alive and well in America in 1998. This is another
one of those topics that we don't like to talk about because we
don't like to look in the mirror in the morning with this stain
on our soul.
And this is a stain on our soul, but sometimes there is an act
so repugnant, so obvious, that it doesn't allow us any shield
When this nation took an African American man in Jasper, Texas,
just weeks ago, dragged him behind a pick-up truck with a chain
and decapitated him, and the only reason was the color of his
skin was black, you have to wonder, have we made any progress
when there are people with that kind of violence and ignorance
and brutality, and not to recognize it as a problem dooms us,
condemns us, to live with it forever. It's not easy.
That was the first answer I was going to give this eight year
old. But then I thought about it and I said I don't think so.
Then I had a second answer, and the second answer was going to
be this, we have made excuses in this nation about why there are
homeless people, and the excuses have allowed us not to really
confront the reality, so we can feint responsibility and compassion
as a nation, which is what we like to believe, that we are compassionate
and fair and just, but we made excuses why this homelessness has
We have three great excuses. The first excuse was they like
it this way. Homeless by choice, they like it this way. These
are romantic type of people, they like to live in the open. They
like to travel around. They like sleeping under the stars. You
have a nice corner with a good doorway, boy, you're home. They
like it that way. That was the first excuse.
We didn't have any responsibility. They don't have to live that
homeless life, they choose to live the homeless life.
Second excuse was, gee, we'd like to do something about it, but
government doesn't have any money, you know, we have the deficit
and we have to pay off the deficit and we'd like to do something
about this, golly, gee whiz, we don't like people sleeping on
the street. What do you think we are, a bunch of animals?
But we have the deficit, so we can't invest in these programs
because we have the deficit. The deficit is gone. God bless
President Bill Clinton. When he came in, the deficit had 11 zeroes.
It's now zero. It's now zero. There is no deficit, now they
are talking about a surplus in this nation, so that excuse is
The third excuse was, we don't know how to reach these people.
We don't know how to reach them. We try, but we don't know how
to reach them.
This room says that's baloney. We know how to reach them. We
know how to reach each and every person who is out there and we
know that no one has to be out there given the talent and the
ability and the expertise that's in this room.
That was my second answer, but I didn't want to give that answer
either, so I said to the eight year old, let me put it this way,
there are 1,000 reasons why a person might become homeless, but
there is no reason that justifies their staying homeless.
With the talent that is in this room, with the knowledge that
is in this room, the ability that is in this room, with removing
all of the excuses the way we have, with the advocacy that you
are going to bring when you go off to the Hill, I am sure, more
now than ever before, that we can really make homelessness an
American tragedy of the past, with no place in America's future.
Together, we are going to do it.
Thank you very much for having me today.
(Whereupon, the PROCEEDINGS were adjourned.)
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