Prepared Remarks of Secretary Shaun Donovan Before the University of Pennsylvania

At the International Homelessness Research Conference
Monday, June 3, 2013

As prepared for delivery

Thank you very much, Dennis (Culhane), for that kind introduction. And more importantly, thank you for your decades of pioneering work.

You have helped all of us better understand homelessness so we can make informed and effective policy decisions. You have also done something once thought impossible - you made data cool when you were featured in Esquire magazine. So thank you for making all of us look good, and of course, for doing so much good on behalf of the most vulnerable communities.  

Please allow me to also thank your co-chair, Vince Kane -and the entire conference committee for organizing this important forum. I'd also like to recognize Philip Mangano and Marti Burt.

I understand both will be honored later in the conference for their contributions. I can't think of two people more deserving of this recognition. Their lasting contributions and distinguished service has made a profound difference for so many people.

Finally, I want to express my appreciation to all of you for participating in this forum. The people in this room are out there, every day, furthering understanding, challenging assumptions and breaking new ground. 

That's why this conference represents an incredible opportunity for all of us to share with each other and learn from each other. And I am truly honored to be a part of this dialogue.

My Journey to This Moment

As Dennis mentioned in his introduction, homelessness and housing are two issues that I've been passionate about for a long time. It is an interest that began when I was growing up in New York City. Most of my formative years took place in the 1970's - a time of incredible change and challenge.

New York teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. The city lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs. Middle class families fled to the suburbs, with roughly 800,000 people leaving the city over the course of the decade. 

Miles of neighborhoods were wiped out by arson and abandonment. One could really feel the civic bonds that hold communities together fraying. As I was coming of age, I felt this in a number of ways, including that I began to see an increasing number of homeless people on the streets as I walked to school.

When I'd go to the park, I'd see them sleeping on the benches. When I'd pass by churches, I'd see them resting on the steps. When I'd take the train, I'd see them trying to find shelter in the subway stations.

And what struck me wasn't just that the numbers were growing, but also that the faces were changing. They were becoming increasingly diverse, and there were more families and children than I'd ever seen before. 

And when I'd ask others about why this was happening, I'd often hear those clichés that all of us now know are wrong: that they want to be homeless; that they don't know how to work; and that they aren't "ready" to live in homes until they get sober or on psychiatric medications.

Clearly, there were many who misunderstood the crisis. Even worse was the sense that people had come to expect, even accept, that a person living on the streets was just part of life in an urban area. To them, the homeless were just part of the backdrop of the city - a sentiment that was captured by a headline in Time magazine a few years later: "Shrugging Off the Homeless".

And I remember asking myself: how is this possible New York City? How is this possible in the United States? How, less than two decades after President Johnson declared war on poverty, had so many become resigned to the notion that government could not solve the nation's most urgent and tragic problems?

Like all of you, challenging this harmful cynicism surrounding homelessness has been a lifelong mission for me. It's a mission that began three decades ago when I started volunteering in shelters during college. It's a mission I continued when I interned at the National Coalition for the Homeless right after college. And it's a mission I carry with me today as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

In fact, earlier this year, I took to the streets of Washington, DC to participate in the latest Point-in-Time count. In particular, I remember one conversation with several men outside a church in the Capitol Hill area. We talked about their lives and their challenges.

They knew that the journey to get back on their feet would have a few bumps along the way.

But they deeply believed that access to housing would help them move forward on every other challenge in their lives. This is a belief that so many homeless people have voiced to me over the years. 

They are ready for housing. They are ready for a new beginning. They are ready to get their lives back on track. All of us at HUD, and throughout the Obama administration, are ready as well, which is why we've made an historic commitment to ending homelessness.

Today, I want to talk about:

  • the work we've done to achieve this goal;
  • how research has enabled the evidence-based approach we've taken to advance our cause;
  • how we're using this approach to drive change at all levels; and
  • what all of us must do once we leave this conference to meet the goal of ending homelessness.

Confronting Historic Challenges

I'd like to take you all back again - this time to just a few years ago. The year was 2007. The housing bubble was bursting. And the market began its spiral downward. 

By the time President Obama took office two years later, the United States was facing an historic economic crisis. Home prices had been cratering for 30 straight months. Foreclosures were setting records on a monthly basis. And our nation was losing 800,000 jobs a month.

In short, there was a lot of economic pain out there, causing many to lose their savings and—after exhausting all other options—threatening their homes. To his credit, the President recognized the urgency of the moment from the start, and knew that bold action was needed to provide short-term assistance.  

As part of the Recovery Act in 2009, he created the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing program - known as HPRP. It had two main goals: one, to keep struggling individuals and families in their homes with financial assistance and services, and two, to quickly re-house those experiencing homelessness. 

I'm proud to say that this effort was an overwhelming success. In particular, rapid re-housing proved to be an important tool in preventing families from getting caught up in the system. 

For example, it helped a single mother of two in Tacoma, Washington, who once the recession hit, saw her job hours cut and savings dry up. She was forced to leave her home and move in with a friend, but only with a promise that it was temporary.  

In the old days, we might have eventually lost this family to the viscous cycle of homelessness. 

But with help of our rapid re-housing effort, she received a utility deposit and rental assistance to move into a new place, all while getting her nursing certificate. 

Now she is fully employed and living in a two-bedroom apartment. And she has even bigger dreams for the future: getting an apartment where each of her daughters can have their own bedroom. 

These kinds of transformational outcomes happened across the country. How do we know? Because, from the outset, we evaluated the effectiveness of our intervention efforts. And preliminary results showed that about 90% of those who participated in this program stayed housed, and subsequent findings show few returning to the homeless system.

Even more, these targeted short-term interventions proved to cost less per family than we had projected, enabling us to help many more people in desperate straits. By the program's end, we had helped roughly 1.3 million people, roughly three times the number we had expected to.

Not only did the HPRP program exceed our wildest expectations, it also gave us crucial, real-time feedback while we were designing a plan that would, at long last, end homelessness once and for all.

The landmark result was Opening Doors, the first federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness. The initiative has four fundamental goals to meet this challenge:

  • ending chronic homelessness by 2015;
  • preventing and ending homelessness among veterans by 2015;
  • preventing and ending homelessness for families, youth, and children by 2020; and
  • setting a path to ending all types of homelessness. 

Yes, these are lofty goals. In fact, when I helped announce the plan three years ago, I compared it to President Kennedy's 1961 pledge to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. 

That's because no prior Administration had even issued a comprehensive plan to assist the homeless, much less committed to the concrete timelines set forth in Opening Doors.

By being ambitious—and urging our nation to make homelessness a national priority—I truly believe we can achieve the goals outlined in the plan. I know it's possible because of I've met numerous people across the country that have led the way with their own plans, often thanks to Philip's tireless travels while heading the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.

In so doing, these agents of change proved what just a few years ago seemed nearly impossible:

that we can end homelessness in America; that we can house anyone; and that our challenge now is to house everyone. As part of this work, we want to fundamentally change how our government does business, and help transform the homeless services system as a whole.

The Relevance of Research

As all of you know, this field is full of passionate and dedicated leaders. But, we aren't as effective as we could be. Historically, our approaches have been too fragmented, and as a result, our work hasn't reached its full potential.  

Certainly, in years past, that's been true of government. That's why our first step to transforming the way we do business was breaking down the silos. Opening Doors is theproduct of 19 federal agencies, working in concert with our local partners, including you, to push for progress.

We are sharing resources, exchanging ideas and partnering together like never before. In short, we're complementing each other's efforts rather than complicating them. We're also holding ourselves accountable for outcomes.

And key to this work is investing taxpayer dollars in the most targeted and effective way - toward the interventions that get the most bang for the buck, particularly in these constrained fiscal times.

That's why I'm so proud that we've increasingly incorporated evidence-based practices into our work. You know better than anyone: research changes the game. For proof, look no further than Dennis, whose unique research made the world rethink the approach to homelessness.

His cutting edge use of administrative data revealed that individuals and families who live on the streets and in shelters tend to remain stuck in homelessness - cycling for years from shelter beds to emergency rooms  to detoxes  and even jails. Later, he proved conclusively what we all knew intuitively: that it is more cost-effective to provide chronically homeless households with permanent supportive housing than to maintain this tragic cycle.

So when people say we can't afford to house the chronically homeless, I always respond that we can't afford not to - and that doing so saves both lives and money. And across the board, we continue to learn more about homelessness because of people like Dennis, Marti Burt and so many of you. And I'm excited by this work because I've long been a champion of research.

To me, the data that research yields is more than just a bunch of numbers. It's a roadmap to greater understanding and better decision-making. That's why, during my tenure as Secretary, we've placed a top priority on building a research base for our policies. 

Our investment is reflected by the three HUD studies being presented at this conference, focused on Family Options, Rapid-Re-housing and Veterans Homeless Prevention. Even more important, I have made sure that these research findings and other data inform our policy choices so that we can direct limited resources towards the most effective solutions.   

That's why, in 2010, I created HUDStat, a regular, permanent process to put data at the center of the Department's policymaking and to hold us accountable for outcomes. Through HUDStat, we are learning, both at the national and local levels:where the greatest needs are; where we can make a difference; what is working; andwhat is not working. 

We're looking at data all the time. It allows us to be nimble. And it allows us to target and reach vulnerable communities effectively and efficiently. One area where this is leading to great results is a program called HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing - or VASH. 

Helping our Veterans

As many of you know, this program is the product of an innovative partnership between HUD and Veterans Affairs. Our two agencies combine HUD's Housing Choice Voucher rental assistance with VA's case management and clinical services - but it had some problems when we first started. 

Resources weren't getting to veterans fast enough. And too often, the neediest of them were left out in the cold. That all changed when HUD and the VA were able to analyze the data and determine, for example, how long each step in the process was taking - from identifying a Veteran on the street to getting him or her housed.

This helped us solve problems, and identify what needed to be done by both policymakers and practitioners in order to speed up the process. It also allowed us to better target this important resource to the chronically homeless - those most in need of the robust services and housing assistance available through this program.

As a result, now, when we see places that are doing well, we can visit them and examine why they are succeeding. Then we share those best practices with other partners. If an area is struggling, we take a closer look to determine what's going wrong. In all, these new evidence-based practices are guiding a much more targeted and effective approach. 

As a result, more than 40,000 veterans have been housed in the past four years. And this data represents more than just numbers shifting from one column to the next; it represents people reclaiming their lives. 

And all across the country, people are reclaiming their lives thanks to our new targeted approach. 

From 2010-2012, veterans homelessness dropped more than 17%. During the same period, those experiencing chronic homelessness dropped 9%. And preliminary numbers we have received from communities suggest those numbers have dropped even further. 

In addition, although family homelessness remained flat from 2010-2012, we know that it could have been much worse in these difficult times. So progress is happening. But make no mistake: we can and must accelerate it in a number of ways.   

Accelerating Progress

First we've got to double-down on those efforts we know work. One is Housing First, a best practice that we're working to turn into a common practice. As we all know, those experiencing chronic homelessness often face a variety of other personal challenges - including substance abuse, medical conditions and mental health issues. 

And past models demanded that they address these issues before they could be offered housing.

But all of us here know that the only way to achieve new progress is to challenge old assumptions like these. 

As you know better than anyone, the Housing First model does this. By giving families access to permanent housing, we can help build the supports they need to respond to other challenges in their lives - ranging from health to jobs. 

In fact, HUD did a national study and found that 84 percent of all chronically homeless people were still housed a year after they got placed. So Housing First is providing people and families with newfound stability - and will continue to for the near future.  

In addition to building on successful efforts like these, we've also got to make both providers and the homeless aware about new opportunities. One of those opportunities is in health care - thanks to President Obama's historic reform efforts.   

Right now, states across the country are implementing health care reform, leading to increased access to coverage. This has the potential to give a big boost to our work to ending homelessness.

In those states that choose to expand their Medicaid programs - nearly every person experiencing chronic homelessness will be eligible without having to cut through all sorts of red tape to prove they have a disability.

They'll be eligible simply because they are poor. So homeless providers and health care providers need to work in tandem to ensure that everyone who is eligible gets enrolled.

But that's not enough.

State health care policymakers need to design those benefits so that Medicaid will pay for the types of services that help people get off the streets, out of shelters and into homes.

This support will help individuals and families stabilize their lives.

So whether you are a researcher, advocate or practitioner - we need your help educating state health care systems about the cost of chronic homelessness, and the positive outcomes that occur when people get access to supportive housing.

I also ask you to encourage others to join us in thinking outside the box for new, innovative and cost-effective solutions. One vehicle to do this is boot camps designed to house the homeless, where teams of government officials, non-profits and other stakeholders, from across the country, come together for two and a half days.

Participants learn from each other by exchanging perspectives, stories and best practices. 

And when they return home, they are setting ambitious 100-day goals for their own communities, applying the lessons they learned into their local efforts.

For example, Nashville has strategies in place to triple their housing placement rate by streamlining their process. Charlotte will stretch outside their comfort zone on Housing First to more readily house veterans. Phoenix is on track to end chronic homelessness among veterans by 2014 by concentrating their resources.

This kind of progress is happening across the country - giving every indication that these boot camps are working. They are spreading good ideas and innovative solutions to areas throughout the country. And we should do more of this work in the future.    


Clearly, we are making progress in a number of areas - but there is still much more work to be done. We as a nation are in danger of falling short of our goal of ending homelessness. We are not moving quickly enough. Our services aren't reaching enough people. And too many families have yet to make the transition from the streets back to society. 

At HUD, we are responding to this challenge by continuing to look in the mirror for ways we can sharpen our tools for change, especially in this fiscal environment. We also want to continue to partner with you because it's clear that HUD can't do it alone - nor do we want to. 

All of you bring so much to the table. Your work has opened eyes, changed minds and inspired others to take meaningful action. And now, we all have a responsibility to take our work to the next level so we can reach our shared goals.

So I ask you all to raise your voices and let others know we must end sequestration because federal funding is so important to our work and our cause. I also urge you to raise awareness about the system changes this conference is highlighting to reform how homeless services are offered in local communities. 

And finally, I ask all of you to join me in spreading the word about the urgency of this cause in order to make ending homelessness a national priority. Earlier, I compared the goal of ending homelessness to President Kennedy's 1961 pledge to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.  

It seems a forgone conclusion now that we would get to the moon - and faster than the Soviet Union. But at the time, let's not forget that we were behind in the space race. A few years earlier, news broke that the Soviet Union had beaten the United States into space when it sent its Sputnik satellite into orbit. 

This was a wakeup call and a shock for the entire nation. But we didn't respond to this so-called 'Sputnik moment' by giving up. Instead, we rallied around the cause with such a collective commitment that, just a few years later, President Kennedy issued his historic challenge to the nation.

And because of this relentless ambition - because the country responded to the challenge by taking action - we eventually succeeded. I truly believe that today, if we get everyone to wake-up, realize we are in danger of losing the race to end homelessness and then rise to meet this challenge - we will succeed as well.

So let's make our voices heard. 

To those who are already committed, we say continue to do your great work and look for new ways to use data and research to maximize your impact.

To those who are not fully engaged yet, we say it's to time to get involved, and that by strengthening families, we can strengthen communities and we can strengthen our nation.

And to those who don't think we can solve this problem, we say think again. 

The United States has always been a nation of doers and dreamers. When we set goals, and work towards them as one people - we achieve them. That's why we've got to rally others around our cause. That's why we've got to spark some urgency. That's why we've got to work together like never before, once we leave this conference.

I'm committed to this goal. I know you are committed to this goal. So let's continue to work together to end homelessness, once and for all.


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