Prepared Remarks of Secretary Shaun Donovan at the McKinney Vento Awards Dinner

L'Enfant Plaza Hotel, Washington, DC

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Thank you, Maria.

Let me thank everyone here tonight -- the board of directors, and all the legal advocates who make this dinner--and this work--possible year-in and year-out. Thank you for letting me join you for this year's event.

Let me thank our honorees -- Barbara Ehrenreich, for her extraordinary commitment to our most vulnerable populations.

Barbara, you have done so much to put a human face on not only the struggles families like the Elzers endure in our society -- but also their extraordinary perseverance in the face of overwhelming obstacles.

When no one else will, it's people like you, Barbara--and organizations like the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania and Dechert LLP--who give families not only a voice to help their cause, but a platform from which so many more be helped.

That is what the National Law Center on Homelessness Poverty represents. And no one embodies that commitment--to fairness, to justice--more than Maria Foscarinis.

Maria, I want to thank you -- not only for that very kind, very warm introduction and for your extraordinary leadership of the Law Center, but most of all for your friendship.

Perhaps more than most fields, in housing policy, you are very much the product of who you learn from.

I've been fortunate to have some remarkable teachers and mentors during my lifetime.

And as Maria mentioned, I had the privilege of interning for her fresh out of college, while she was at the National Coalition for the Homeless. In fact, I interned with her the year McKinney-Vento was signed into law -- in 1987.

And contrary to popular belief, I was not 12 years old in 1987. No child labor laws were broken.

But it was Maria who really showed me what was possible for our society when you advocate for people.

When you make advancing the interests of the most vulnerable members of society not simply a cause, but the very standard to which any good and decent society should hold itself.

But what makes Maria such an effective advocate and champion isn't just that she fights -- it's that she wins.

It's one thing to say that no one should be without a safe, stable place to call home -- to say that everyone should be housed.

It's quite another to marshal the resources, the political capital and the moral outrage required to actually do it.

Over nearly three decades, that's precisely what Maria has accomplished.

It began when she led the fight to pass McKinney-Vento, which said that when it came to ending homelessness, the existing mainstream housing resources weren't enough -- that we also needed targeted resources focused on what was then a newly resurgent problem.

It was Maria and the Law Center that helped break the legislative logjam that allowed us take the next leap forward when Congress reauthorized that historic legislation as the HEARTH Act.

HEARTH consolidates HUD's homeless funding streams, it expands HUD's definition of homelessness to allow us to serve more vulnerable individuals and families, and creates the Emergency Solutions Grants program to provide for the flexible prevention and rapid re-housing responses we have seen with the $1.5 billion Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program under President Obama's Recovery Act.

To date, HPRP has prevented and ended homelessness for well over a half million people -- the US Conference of Mayors has said that it is fundamentally changing the way communities respond to homelessness.

And with HEARTH, we are embedding these principles and lessons into law -- giving communities the critical tools they need to strategically and effectively confront homelessness.

Well, today, I'm proud to say that we've come full circle -- ensuring that mainstream resources across the Federal government work in tandem with targeted homeless programs to achieve the ambitious timelines set forth in Opening Doors, the first ever federal strategic plan to end homelessness.

We are going to realize your vision at last.

The Road to Opening Doors

Of course, as important of a milestone as McKinney-Vento was, each of us here knows that its real power is realized at the local level in communities across the country through what we call "Continuums of Care" -- which provide everything from street outreach and safe havens for those with severe mental illness to transitional and permanent homes for the homeless.

Nowhere is the success of these efforts clearer than the fight to end chronic homelessness.

Less than a decade ago, it was widely believed that those who struggle with chemical dependency and mental illness and often cycle from shelters to jails to emergency rooms would always be homeless. Some even suggested these individuals wanted to be homeless.

Thankfully, people in this room thought otherwise. From rural Mankato, Minnesota to urban San Francisco, countless leaders in our neighborhoods and communities refused to believe the chronically-ill, long-term homeless couldn't be helped.

Partnering with local and state agencies and the private and nonprofit sectors, these communities worked in coordination with the Federal government to deliver permanent supportive housing for people who had been homeless the longest.

In fact, since 2001, HUD has funded the development of more than 70,000 permanent supportive housing beds.

Still, the fight to end chronic homelessness was waged at the local level, with hundreds of communities leading the way with their own plans. Indeed, by combining housing and supportive services, they led a remarkable fight that has reduced the number of chronically homeless persons by more than a third inside of five years.

None of that is to say that the fight is over. With family homelessness in rural and urban areas alike having risen by 30 percent over the last two years, we still have a long way to go.

But let's be clear -- the fight to end chronic homelessness proved what just a few years ago seemed nearly impossible:

That we can end homelessness in America -- chronic homelessness, family homelessness, veterans homelessness. All homelessness.

With Opening Doors--the first comprehensive federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness--the Obama Administration commits to doing just that.

The most far-reaching and ambitious plan in our history to put our nation on the path toward ending all types of homelessness and the culmination of more than a decade's work in communities around the country, this plan will end chronic homelessness and homelessness among veterans in five years, while ending homelessness for families, youth, and children within a decade -- breaking down bureaucracy to fund what works and get results.

And as Chair of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, I want to thank our executive director, Barbara Poppe, for bringing a plan of this scope and vision to fruition.

To meet the increased need we face, I'm proud that the Obama Administration increased homelessness funding by 10 percent in its 2011 budget request -- which would more than double the funding levels we saw a decade ago.

This isn't to suggest that increasing funding for targeted homelessness programs alone will get the job done. Indeed, Maria and others who conceived the McKinney-Vento Act knew this from the very beginning -- that mainstream housing and service programs at the local, state and federal levels would have to incorporate successful strategies for combating homelessness if we were ever reach the scale needed to actually solve the problem.

Most people have probably forgotten by now that the original McKinney-Vento Act was created as a demonstration program.

Well, the time for demonstration is over -- we have the technology and the evidence we need. And it's time to take them to scale, locally and federally.

That's why the Obama Administration has made interagency partnerships a priority. And it's why we've refused to take the traditional "no's" that bureaucracies give for an answer.

As many of you know, that's only been possible because our team at HUD has been led by people like Fred Karnas, Mark Johnston and Jonathan Harwitz.

With Fred, Mark and Jonathan leading the way, even in a tough budget environment, we are not only strengthening existing partnerships such as HUD-VASH, but forging new ones between agencies like HUD and the Department of Health and Human Services by connecting 10,000 housing vouchers with health and social services provided through Medicaid and SAMHSA.

We can't hope to solve homelessness at the local level by combining housing and services if there isn't effective collaboration taking place at the federal level. That's what this partnership is about.

But when it comes to homeless children, we know that collaboration must go beyond our two agencies.

Here again, the Law Center has shown us the way -- that solving the problems in our schools can't be done without solving the problem of homelessness on our streets, in shelters and in too many of America's overcrowded homes where families are forced to double up.

Because of her leadership and the work of organizations like the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, we've seen how the correlation between stable housing and good schools isn't just theory -- it's practice.

And by strengthening our partnership with the Department of Education, we intend to take that practice to scale in communities across the country -- through joint trainings, through a demonstration that provides 6,000 vouchers to homeless families, and through other efforts to ensure that all children of pre-school and school age have the stability of a safe, affordable home where they can learn, grow and thrive.

Opening Doors also reflects another long-standing priority of this audience's, which is to ensure our society meets the most minimum, basic standard for treatment of the poor and homeless by not criminalizing them.

You and I both know that criminalizing those who are homeless is not only morally wrong -- it also does nothing to stop homelessness or improve the circumstances of those without a home. It serves only to increase costs -- both in taxpayer dollars and in human suffering.

In the coming months, the Interagency Council will be convening a working group to develop a federal strategy to end the criminalization of homelessness once and for all.

This is an idea whose time has come.

Ending Homelessness In Our Time

Some might think we can't afford this plan at this time -- in a time of economic crisis and budget cutbacks.

I say we can't afford not to -- even with the enormous body of evidence we've built up that demonstrates how actually ending homelessness--how ending the costly cycle through emergency rooms and the criminal justice system--doesn't cost the taxpayers -- it saves money for the taxpayer.

And it saves lives.

In the coming weeks and months, we will need your advocacy and your commitment yet again -- as we build the case for the resources we will need to put this plan into action and to make its promise real.

We've come too far to let up now.

It was 66 years ago, during his final State of the Union address in 1944, that President Roosevelt declared the right of every family to a decent home.

He believed then--as each of us does here--that true individual freedom cannot and could not exist without the economic security and independence a home provides.

More than six-and-a-half decades later, I'm proud to say that we are finally on the path to realizing that vision -- as difficult as it may seem at this moment in history, just as it must have been for President Roosevelt to imagine during the midst of the Great Depression.

It's thanks to people like you, who never lose faith in what is possible -- who insist that our reach always exceed our grasp, no matter the odds, regardless of circumstance.

That is what we celebrate tonight:

The high standards to which we hold ourselves -- inside and outside of government. In good times and in bad.

And that is why I'm so proud to join you and each of the remarkable individuals and organizations you have chosen to honor tonight.

Thank you -- and keep up the great work.


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