Prepared Remarks of Secretary Shaun Donovan at the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans

Grand Hyatt Washington, Washington D.C.
Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Thank you, Secretary Shinseki, for that introduction, and for your leadership.

It is a real privilege to join the Secretary in accepting this award -- because as everyone here knows, this Administration's work to house our veterans could not have happened without his dedication and partnership.

And I'd like to ask all of you to join me in applauding Secretary Shinseki for his service.

It is my deep honor to be able to accept this award on behalf of President Obama and the First Lady, whose commitment to our veterans and military families is an inspiration to all of us who care about helping our heroes find a decent place to call home.

Whether it's the President's historic commitment to end veterans homelessness by 2015, or the First Lady's remarkable work to ensure military and veteran families get the jobs, health care, and affordable housing they need when they return home, this Administration's dedication to our veterans and our military families starts right at the top.

And I couldn't be prouder to work for a President who has the passion to see our commitment through.

So, thank you -- for this award, and to Pat Ryan and John Driscoll for their leadership.

For more than 20 years, this Coalition has fought for those who have fought for all of us. You've worked to help homeless veterans not only find homes, but start to rebuild their lives. And you've been a critical partner to HUD and the entire Obama Administration as we've worked to end homelessness among veterans.

Not fight it, or even reduce it, but end it -- once and for all.

And that's what I'd like to talk to you about today -- to discuss what we as a nation owe our veterans for the sacrifices they make for us.

I want to tell you about the work we're doing across the Obama Administration to pay that debt -- whether it's finding good jobs for returning veterans, getting restitution for servicemen and women unfairly harmed by foreclosures, or working to ensure that no military family will ever again be exploited by the greed and recklessness we saw during the worst of the economic crisis.

But most of all, I want to talk about the progress we've made in upholding our commitment to end the tragedy of veterans' homelessness by 2015 -- and the work that lies ahead to finish the job.

America's Latest "Greatest" Generation

Today represents an important moment. Only two days ago, we joined as a nation to commemorate Memorial Day -- honoring those men and women in our military who paid the ultimate price and laid down their lives for our freedom.

But this year's remembrance had an additional power and resonance -- as we observed the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.

Many of you here fought in those jungles, and on those battlefields yourselves. And a half-century later, we've all come to appreciate what our troops sacrificed in that conflict.

Of course, from World War II and Korea, to the first Gulf War, to our engagement in the Balkans, to Iraq and Afghanistan today, we've always celebrated the connection between American troops and American values.

But today, as we mark the 20th anniversary of Operation Desert Storm--and enter our 12th year of conflict in the post-9/11 era--that acknowledgement of the dedication of our troops has become even more commonplace.

And whether it's recognizing the commitment of our veterans between innings at a baseball game…honoring the veterans sitting in the First Lady's box at the last several State of the Union addresses…or the countless songs, movies and television shows about our troops, celebrating the service and sacrifice of our troops has become a part of our daily lives.

I believe, as I know President Obama does, that celebration is genuine, heartfelt, and absolutely right.

And for me, for Secretary Shinseki, and for the President and First Lady, it's emblematic of a deeper understanding -- an understanding that transcends partisan politics and is shared by all Americans, regardless of whether they or a loved one has ever worn our country's uniform.

An understanding that there is no greater, purer example of the social compact that defines our country or the opportunities we have as Americans than that which we have with our veterans.

After all, it is through our veterans that we are reminded that in America, we are not a collection of people or communities -- but citizens of the same community. A community that, regardless of how much--or how loudly--we might sometimes disagree with each other, succeeds or fails together as one people.

But with more than one million servicemembers transitioning back into communities by 2016, we need to ensure that the unprecedented place veterans occupy in America's consciousness today is matched by a commitment worthy of their sacrifice.

To this Administration, the first--and clearest--way we can repay our veterans is by providing them the opportunity to get a good job with which they can raise a family, and settle into a community.

That's why one of the top items on President Obama's "to-do" list of legislative priorities is the creation of a Veterans Jobs Corps that will help hire veterans as cops, firefighters, and other professions where these heroes can serve their communities.

That's on top of the challenge President Obama made to the private sector last year to hire or train 100,000 veterans and their spouses by 2013 -- and the creation of two new veterans' tax credits that would make it easier for businesses to do just that.

We know veterans bring a dedication of purpose and sense of leadership to whatever the task is before them. That's why, as our economy continues to recover, hiring these veterans isn't just the right thing to do -- it's the smart thing to do for entrepreneurs looking to grow their businesses and get a competitive edge.

The second thing we owe our veterans is to recognize the unique ways this foreclosure crisis impacted them and their families.

For most families, moving to a different community, in a different state, is often a cause for celebration. It's because they got a new job, bought a new home, or decided to move closer to parents or children.

But for many servicemen and women, they move not out of choice, but out of duty. Indeed, military families often find themselves packing up and moving because their country asked them to relocate to a different duty station.

But instead of offering a helping hand, too often in the years leading up to the crisis banks and other financial institutions saw military families as targets for exploitation -- wrongfully foreclosing on some, illegally jacking up interest rates, and taking advantage of families forced to take a loss when selling their homes due to military relocation.

President Obama believes that isn't just wrong -- it's not who we are as Americans.

That's why I'm so proud that the historic, $25 billion settlement the Administration and 49 state attorneys general struck with the nation's five largest servicers will ensure military families harmed by the crisis are made whole.

First, servicemembers and their families who were wrongfully foreclosed on could receive benefits including the payment of lost equity plus interest, with as much as $117,000 in additional bank penalties.

Some could even see the return of their home -- debt-free, without ever having to owe another dime on their mortgage.

Second, those who asked for help but were still charged excessive interest on their mortgages will receive full refunds -- and families forced to sell their homes at a loss due to military relocation can be compensated as well.

But this settlement isn't just about compensation for the harm families have already suffered. Thanks to the standards we've put in place, servicemembers forced to move to serve their country will be able to either sell their home without losing money, or get the modification they need to keep it -- even if it is rented out or empty.

These protections reflect a broader understanding on both sides of the political aisle:

That no one man or woman who ever puts on a uniform to fight for their home, should ever have to worry about losing their home because they did.

That should never happen in America. And because of this settlement, it never will again.

Ending Veterans Homelessness

Of course, you and I know that a home is more than just the mortgage or lease you sign -- it's where we raise our children, put down roots, and build our lives.

But for so many of our veterans, it's also where they rebuild their lives.

We all know the toll that war takes, from physical disabilities to scars of a different sort -- depression, addiction, or post-traumatic stress disorder that are no less profound for being invisible to the naked eye.

These scars are the reason that veterans are 50 percent more likely to be homeless.

That's a tragedy. But as I've told you before, and as you have proven to us time and again, it's tragedy we can solve.

You all know the old approach we took to tackling homelessness.

For decades, the Federal government used to say to somebody living on the streets with substance abuse, for example, "Get sober -- and then we'll help you find a place to live."

Well, partners like you proved that approach had it absolutely backwards. Indeed, localities across the country partnered with nonprofit and community activists to demonstrate the extraordinary promise of what's come to be known as "Housing First" -- a model that has transformed the way our country responds to veterans homelessness.

These communities showed that when you get someone into safe, stable housing, and combine that housing with targeted supportive services, their outcomes improve -- often dramatically.

Those struggling with mental illness often started to take their medication. And those trying to overcome addiction had the stability they needed to begin the hard journey to sobriety.

The results were remarkable. With federal support, localities were able to reduce chronic homelessness by one-third inside of five years. And with President Obama's leadership--and Secretary Shinseki's commitment--we've spent the last three years building on that model.

Through the Recovery Act's Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program, we've already prevented or ended homelessness for more than 1.2 million people.

We've housed more than 30,000 veterans through the HUD-VASH program, which combines HUD's Housing Choice Voucher rental assistance with VA's case management and clinical services.

And in the wake of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the results of our last "Point-in-Time" count show that we helped 1-in-5 veterans get off our nation's streets in the course of just one year.

That's real progress. That's what it's going to take to end veterans' homelessness. And with the commitment of Opening Doors--the first federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness--we will.

Indeed, as a result of our success, we've demonstrated that ending homelessness not only helps save lives, but also saves money for the American taxpayer -- ending the revolving door of emergency rooms, shelters and jails.

These successes allow us to make the case for more investments in a tough budget environment. In HUD's 2013 budget, we're proposing to increase our investment in homelessness by about 15 percent -- and requested an additional $75 million for HUD-VASH.

That's funding we need to fight for.

We need you to help us make the case that the innovative tools pioneered by localities and brought to scale by the Obama Administration work.

Indeed, one of the most innovative partnerships the Obama Administration has forged is the $15 million demonstration between HUD, VA and the Labor Department.

With this effort, our three agencies are working together to prevent homelessness for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan -- and is targeted to veterans living in communities near five military installations.

While HUD offers veterans short- or medium-term rental assistance like that offered by HPRP--including security deposits, utility payments, and case management--our partners at VA are providing veterans with access to VA health care and benefits, while the Department of Labor is offering assistance to veterans through its existing veterans' employment and training programs.

In the first year of this demonstration, more than 1,200 veterans, spouses and children received services that prevented them from becoming homeless -- from rental assistance, to job training, to case management.

And given the unique challenges faced by returning female servicemembers, I'm particularly proud that more than 1-in-4 of the veterans served by this demonstration are women.

Of course, as important as federal partnership is, local communities will be the ones who carry out this work -- on the ground, and in their neighborhoods.

Indeed, just a few weeks ago I was in New York City, where I discussed a first-of-its-kind, public-private effort launched by the White House, federal agencies, the city of New York and the Robin Hood Foundation to help veterans who return home to New York City receive the services they need to transition successfully to civilian life.

These efforts will inform the White House Veterans Policy Planning Conference that will be convened next month.

There, federal agencies, National Security Staff, the Domestic Policy Council, the National Economic Council, the White House Business Council and the First Lady and Dr Biden's Joining Forces initiative will be working together with one goal in mind:

To ensure that every returning veteran has a fighting chance to build successful lives in the country they love.

Keeping Our Commitment

Ultimately--for me, for Secretary Shinseki and for President Obama--this work represents more than a commitment.

It represents a covenant -- one we keep with our heroes, each of whom leaves the stability and comfort of their homes, families, and communities. Each of whom chooses uncertainty and the real possibility they will be sent into harm's way.

What makes that sacrifice special is that they do all this not just because they believe in America as it is -- or even as it can be.

But rather, as it should be.

And so a good job, affordable health care, a roof over their heads -- these are the promises we make to our troops when they fight for our country.

But we also make another, unspoken, promise:

That they can return to a country that is stronger and better than the one they left.

That their nation will never stop striving to live up to its highest ideals -- to our responsibilities to one another to provide opportunity and shared prosperity to all our citizens.

That is the contract we sign with our veterans.

That is the trust we honor -- with a dedication and persistence our nation's heroes could recognize in themselves.

As the President said, "While no words will ever be fully worthy of their service, nor any honor truly befitting their sacrifice, let us remember that it is never too late to pay tribute to the men and women who answered the call of duty with courage and valor."

Paying that tribute, and rewarding their faith in America, is the task we have ahead. It's the commitment all of you share -- and that President Obama shares.

And it's why I'm so proud to join you today. Thank you -- for your work, for your commitment, and for all that you do.


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