Prepared Remarks of Secretary Shaun Donovan at the National Forum on Homelessness Among Veterans

Hyatt Regency Crystal City

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Thank you, Mark -- not only for that very kind introduction, but for the extraordinary work you do at HUD for America's homeless and homeless veterans.

I also want to say a very fond thank you to our hosts, the Department of Veterans Affairs -- particularly my colleague and friend, Secretary Shinseki. This Administration's commitment to those who have served our country starts at the top -- with President Obama and the First Lady, each of whom have been passionate about ending veterans homelessness.

But for me, no one has been a more remarkable partner preventing and ending veterans' homelessness--or had a more laser-like focus--than Secretary Shinseki.

As someone with 38 years of service in the U.S. military, Secretary Shinseki understands what veterans need. And while ending homelessness is a new cause for him, he has made an enormous commitment to understanding housing--and Housing First--quickly and comprehensively.

And Secretary Shinseki - I want to say to you that I'm behind you, and I have your back.

Indeed, when it comes to making sure that homeless veterans get the help they need, Secretary Shinseki is a man on a mission.

And this forum is critical step toward fulfilling that mission.

So I want to talk to you today about the work we do at HUD to target the veterans population.

Today, 13 percent of our nation's homeless sheltered population are veterans.

Think about that for a moment -- one out of every six men and women in our shelters has worn our country's uniform.

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I recently met with new members of congress and new governors -- both Democrats and Republicans. And that statistic got everyone's attention. It showed me that ending veterans homelessness is an issue with strong bipartisan support and where we can make real progress in the next two years.

It's not just our Vietnam vets. Too many of the brave Americans who deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now living on our streets.

And according to HUD's Annual Homelessness Assessment Report, while the total number of homeless people in America dropped slightly between 2008 and 2009, the number of homeless families increased overall--including the number of veterans with dependent children--almost certainly due to the ongoing effects of the recession.

I'm here today because I believe we are better than that -- as Americans, as a country.

Nowhere is our obligation to our citizens, and to those who have defended our nation, more important, more visible, or more urgently necessary than in our commitment to end homelessness.

It is a fight we must take on, it is a fight the President has taken on -- and most important of all, it is a fight we must win.

Progress in the Fight Against Homelessness

To be sure, this is a historic moment -- as we fight an economic crisis that has left no community untouched and impacted our most vulnerable populations acutely.

As a result, on any given night in America, more than 640,000 men, women, and children are without housing, and almost three times that number find themselves homeless at some point every year.

By any measure, that is a tragedy.

But what makes that tragedy even more heartbreaking is that we have proven in recent years that homelessness isn't simply a noble fight -- but a problem we can solve.

Less than a decade ago, it was widely believed that those we often refer to as the "chronically homeless"--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--many of whom are veterans--wanted to be homeless.

But leaders outside the Washington Beltway--from rural Mankato, Minnesota to urban San Francisco--refused to accept that reality -- or believe that the chronically ill, long-term homeless couldn't be helped.

Partnering with local and state agencies and the private and nonprofit sectors, more than 300 communities committed themselves to ending chronic homelessness.

By connecting housing with voluntary supportive services, they led the remarkable fight that has reduced the number of chronically homeless people by more than a third inside of five years.

This effort started from the ground up at the local level, including many of you -- but that progress wouldn't have been possible without the help of the Bush Administration and Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle.

I saw this remarkable, bipartisan coalition up close when I was the housing commissioner in New York City. There, Mayor Bloomberg and I worked with Republican governor, George Pataki, to enter into NY/NY III -- a billion dollar investment to create 9,000 new units of supportive housing for the homelessness.

Given his background in business, Mayor Bloomberg was motivated not just by the fact that this was the right thing to do, but by data proving that supportive housing successfully kept people off the streets, while Governor Pataki was attracted to the long-term savings. We understood from the data we had the fact that the real cost to the taxpayer wasn't the cost of housing the homeless, but rather the revolving door of emergency rooms, shelters, and jails that we would have to pay for if we didn't.

Together, this bipartisan coalition 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.

And with new tools and partnerships, that is precisely what we are doing.

Indeed, I'm proud to share with this audience today that the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program created by President Obama's Recovery Act has prevented and ended homelessness for 750,000 people.

Three-quarters of a million people have a place to call home because of that historic legislation.

And that's just the impact it's having today. No less of an authority than the U.S. Conference of Mayors reports that the Recovery Act is "fundamentally changing" the way communities respond to homelessness at the local level.

That's because instead of waiting for people to become homeless, the Recovery Act is keeping people in their homes and quickly returning those who do fall into homelessness to the stable, permanent housing they need.

You all know that as little as one paycheck can be the difference between an individual or family having access to stable housing, or falling into the cycle of homelessness. Before HPRP, there was no tool to break this cycle - but thanks to the Recovery Act, there is now.

And next year, the HEARTH Act President Obama signed will embed so-called "Housing First" principles into law, giving us additional tools to solve homelessness -- and giving communities the critical tools they need to strategically and effectively confront it.

Taking the Fight to the Mainstream

Of course, everyone here knows that access to affordable housing ends homelessness. But as you also know, sustaining that housing--and rebuilding lives--often requires us to go further and offer a broader array of support and assistance.

Recognizing the need for a truly comprehensive homelessness policy is what Opening Doors is about.

Marshalling the collective force of 19 separate agencies within the Federal government, Opening Doors is the first ever federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness -- and the ideas and contributions of so many of you here today were essential in shaping it.

It is the most far-reaching and ambitious plan in our history to put our nation on the path toward ending all types of homelessness -- proposing to end chronic homelessness and homelessness among veterans in five years, while ending homelessness for families, youth, and children within a decade.

As the outgoing chairman of the Interagency Council on Homelessness, I'd like to acknowledge, in addition to the remarkable work that Secretary Shinseki has done, extraordinary colleagues like Secretary Solis of the Department of Labor and Secretary Sebelius of the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the hard work and leadership of the Council's executive director, my good friend, and a remarkable force of nature, Barbara Poppe who brought this visionary plan to fruition.

One of the things Barbara has done is bring an exceptional team to this issue - and you can see that in Anthony Love.

Over the last decade, people like Barbara and Anthony have proven that with the right tools and the right partners, we can house anyone.

Our job now is to house everyone -- to prevent and end homelessness. All homelessness -- and particularly for those who have served this country.

And with this plan, this President and this Cabinet have said that we will end homelessness.

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

But as everyone in this audience knows, increasing funding for targeted homelessness programs alone won't get the job done for our homeless veterans.

That's why the Obama Administration has made interagency partnerships a priority -- charging each agency to work together to figure out how we can spend less money, and target that money more effectively to serve more people at risk of homelessness.

Or as Secretary Shinseki said yesterday, "we need to do things faster, better, and smarter."

Making a Difference through HUD -VASH

Indeed, nowhere is the new commitment to solving veterans homelessness clearer than the increased investment we've made in the HUD-VASH partnership, which combines HUD's Housing Choice Voucher rental assistance with VA's case management and clinical services.

Certainly, each of our agencies has worked hard individually to do right by our homeless veterans.

At HUD, we have HUDVET -- a Veterans Resource Center that provides veterans and family members with information on HUD's community-based programs and services.

And this forum is but only the latest evidence that Secretary Shinseki and his staff are making the issue of veterans homelessness a top priority.

Together, our agencies have made reducing homelessness among veterans a joint High Priority Performance Goal.

Now, if you don't speak "HUD" or "VA", let me tell you - there are a limited number of high priority goals that not only define an Administration priority, but set up a clear standard of success that allows us to measure our progress in achieving it.

Together, HUD and VA are committed to reducing the number of homeless veterans to 59,000 by June of 2012, putting us on the path to ending homelessness in five years. And HUD is committed to assisting 13,250 homeless veterans to move out of homelessness into permanent housing each year.

And there is no more important tool to realizing that goal than HUD-VASH.

Through this partnership, HUD and VA will provide permanent housing and services for approximately 30,000 homeless veterans and their family members.

And I'm pleased to report the progress we are making.

In all, nearly 26,000 HUD-VASH vouchers have been issued to veterans -- helping them find and afford the housing they need.

And to date, nearly two-thirds of the 30,000 HUD-VASH vouchers have been leased up -- which represents remarkable progress from where we were only six months ago.

Measuring Progress

While the current budget situation is far from certain, and we will need to struggle in the years ahead to ensure we have the resources we need, I am optimistic about our chances to get more vouchers next year -- so long as we continue to demonstrate the need and our effectiveness at meeting it.

That starts with good data.

Now, as Secretary Shinseki will tell you, I'm a numbers guy.

But I'm not interested in numbers and data for their own sake -- but rather for what they can tell us.

I believe there is real value in setting clear, quantifiable goals and managing progress against them. Too often in government, we're not even sure what success looks like.

Setting these kinds of goals not only creates rallying points for government agencies -- collectively, they also create a vision for what success looks like and what the responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars ought to look like.

That starts with each of you here in this room.

Indeed, as important as new partnerships and leadership at the federal level are, what makes this conference significant is it recognizes that to make the biggest possible difference we need partnerships that are equally effective at the local level -- in particular, between housing authorities and VA Medical Centers.

After all, you are the ones on the front lines -- serving our veterans and understanding the unique circumstances each faces in their fight to stay off the streets.

That's why I'm thrilled that Secretary Shinseki is directing VA to create a homeless registry and to participate in our Homeless Management Information Systems -- or HMIS.

HMIS provides critical insights -- giving us the fuller picture we need of how many units are available and people we are serving.

And I'm excited that the VA is working with HUD and the Office of Management and Budget to craft additional data sharing efforts that ensure we have the best possible information available about who these efforts are impacting and how effectively.

Another critical tool is our January "Point In Time" count, which tracks how many people are homeless on any given night in America. Here again, we are working with the VA to ensure that count accurately reflects the number of homeless vets.

And I'd like to echo what Barbara Poppe said yesterday about the critical role so many of you can play in helping us get an accurate PIT count. Given the unprecedented opportunity we have in the upcoming year to gather valuable data on veterans' homelessness, I urge all providers here today to get involved in PIT planning and implementation.

In all these efforts, it is absolutely critical that every local VA Medical Center and other VA staff work closely with the Continuums of Care -- and we are encouraging them to welcome your participation with open arms.

Each of you is essential to getting the most accurate homelessness count we can this coming year.

But of course, it's not just about the accuracy of the count. Data helps us figure out what works, what doesn't and what we need to do better - and as people like Dennis Culhane, who you will be hearing from shortly, have shown, it also helps us craft new policy.

Indeed, Dennis's work was the genesis of HMIS. He helps us write our Annual Homelessness Assessment Report, and is now the research director for VA on homeless issues.

By tracking the homeless across a broad range of systems using their Social Security numbers and other key data, it was Dennis who was able to prove that combining housing and supportive services not only led to better outcomes for the homeless, but also saved the taxpayer money -- giving us the model we needed to reduce chronic homelessness.

Now, he's pointing out that effective homeless prevention is perhaps best done at the shelter door -- another important insight.

So, when I go before Congress in a few months, I will be asking for the resources, tools and flexibility we need to continue making progress in the fight to end veterans homelessness.

And, I will tell you: as tough as it can be to gather and report that data, there is nothing more important we can do to earn lawmakers' trust -- and present them with the evidence they need to see that preventing and ending homelessness is not only the right thing to do for our veterans, but for our country as a whole.

Demonstrating a New Way of Doing Business

One way we can do that is through our $15 million Veterans Homelessness Prevention Demonstration Program between HUD, the VA and the Department of Labor.

Bringing our three agencies together for the first time to prevent homelessness, this demonstration is targeted at preventing homelessness for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan living in communities near military installations -- like MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, San Diego's Camp Pendleton, Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, as well as several other bases located in rural and urban America.

Our goal is to determine how we can best prevent homelessness among recently-returned veterans.

While the VA is providing veterans with access to VA health care and benefits, HUD is providing short- or medium-term rental assistance, including security deposits, utility payments and case management.

And to ensure veterans transitioning back into their communities get the jobs they need to support themselves and their families, the Labor Department is providing assistance through its existing veterans' employment and training programs.

The men and women who serve our nation deserve better than a life on the streets when they return home. They deserve our respect -- and they deserve opportunity.

Through this demonstration, we hope to provide the model we need to ensure that they get the respect and opportunity they have earned to live their lives to their fullest potential.

Ending Veterans Homelessness In Our Time

And that's precisely what we are talking about here -- realizing our potential.

Some might hear about all these efforts and think we can't afford this new commitment at this time -- in a time of economic pain and budget cutbacks.

I say we can't afford not to.

To be sure, with the enormous body of evidence we've built up, we've demonstrated that actually ending homelessness--and ending the costly cycle through emergency rooms and the criminal justice system--doesn't cost the taxpayers -- but saves them money.

But the fight to house veterans isn't only about dollars and cents -- it's also about who we are as a country and as Americans.

I believe, President Obama believes and Secretary Shinseki believes in providing every American--from the most capable to the most vulnerable--the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.

That begins with a strong commitment to preventing and ending homelessness -- particularly for those who have given us so much.

A commitment to housing every American who has ever worn our country's uniform, fought our battles or protected our way of life.

Let me tell you a story about why I took this job. When I was in graduate school at Harvard, I was teaching a class for a professor of mine. One day, when class was over, I went outside to Harvard Square and saw a homeless man standing on the street corner.

I'll never forget that he was holding a picture up -- a picture of himself as a soldier.

He was holding that picture because it was the only way he could be sure he wasn't invisible -- that I and others passing him on the street would notice he was even there.

No one who has fought for our country should ever be invisible to the American people.

Not after all they have done for us -- after all they and their families have sacrificed.

That's why, as President Obama has said, "until we reach a day when not a single veteran sleeps on our nation's streets, our work remains unfinished."

Thanks to the efforts of so many of you, we already know that we have the ability to complete that work.

That we can end veterans' homelessness -- indeed, that we can end all homelessness.

Working together, in a bipartisan way, I know that we will.

Thank you, and God Bless our veterans and the country they love so much.


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