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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. John?

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, Karen Hinton.

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…she's 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 community-based facilities.

We went to build them and these neighbors said, no, we don't want any community-based facility here, okay, never mind, bad idea.

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 conservative Congress.

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 in history.

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 family.

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 of disbelief.

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 continued.

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 gone.

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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Content Archived: January 20, 2009

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