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National Alliance to End Homelessness
National Conference

"Taking On the Problem That 'Cannot Be Solved'"
Remarks prepared for delivery by
Secretary Mel Martinez

Washington, DC
Friday, July 20, 2001

Thank you, Nan, for that generous introduction. The homeless today have a stronger voice because of your good work, and the selfless contributions of Susan and Eli. You have our thanks.

To all of you, welcome to Washington. I appreciate your very warm greeting. If the size of this audience is any indication, it looks like your national conference is a great success.

Standing before such a large group reminds me that success these days is more often than not measured in numbers. The family saving up for a new car adds up how much they have managed to put away, and how many more months of belt-tightening are ahead. The theater manager who just raised his ticket prices calculates whether the move is costing him business. The runner figures out how many seconds she shaved off her mile, and how many more need to go before she is competitive.

Success or failure is defined by measuring the distance between where you began, and where you ended up. And no city is more focused on numbers and results than Washington.

That must be frustrating for you, the men and women who serve the homeless, because in your case, numbers alone do not tell the story. Even though you achieve remarkable success - every day - there is always another homeless person waiting to take the place of the one you just rescued from the streets. If someone measured the number of homeless at sunrise and returned to count them again at sundown, they might think we have not made much progress.

Then I would tell them about Felecia.

When she arrived at the Partner Arms transitional housing program, one of our faith-based partners here in Washington, Felecia was facing a crisis. She was a mother at age 16, married at 17, and abandoned by her husband at 18, after he physically and emotionally abused her. Her in-laws and even her own family had turned away from her. She had not completed high school. And she was an immigrant from South America, forced to cope with cultural barriers as well.

Felecia had nowhere to go - until Partner Arms took her in.

Thanks to her own determination and the guidance of a caring casework staff, Felecia now has the life she always imagined. Just two years after losing almost everything, Felecia graduated from high school and is heading off to college. She has a full-time job. And a car. And she is a legal U.S. resident now, too.

I almost forgot to mention that she just bought a four-bedroom home. Felecia is obviously on her way to living the American Dream.

There are Felecias in every community, individuals who get forgotten in the great national focus on measurable results, but who are living productive, fulfilling lives today because they entrusted themselves into the care of people like you. I have seen for myself how devoted you are to the cause of ending homelessness. I salute you for your passion. I thank you for your commitment. And the Department of Housing and Urban Development stands with you as your partner.

There are those who write off homelessness as the problem that "cannot be solved." We did not become the world's leader in medicine, technology, transportation, electronics, and manufacturing by relegating our most pressing national problems to the dustbin of "cannot be solved." We did not become a beacon for anyone seeking to live a free and productive life by embracing "cannot be solved" as our motto and guiding principle.

I promise you this: when the subject turns to the homeless, the words "cannot be solved" will not be part of our vocabulary inside the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy declared it was "time for a great new American enterprise" and he laid down the challenge, "before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth." And less than ten years later, we had. It was a remarkable achievement.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness has outlined a plan to end homelessness within ten years, in roughly the same amount of time it took to transform the United States from a second-place contender in the space race, to a nation that proudly welcomed its astronauts back from the moon with a massive ticker-tape parade down Broadway.

The challenge in ending homelessness is just as great, but so is our determination. So today, I say that it is time to dedicate ourselves to the next "great new American enterprise." It is time to commit the multitudes of talents and resources that bless this nation to the task of providing appropriate support, and finding homes - permanent homes - for the chronically homeless.

It is not an impossible goal. You bring an incredible wealth of experience to the job ahead, and have already accomplished tremendous good in meeting the needs of America's homeless. Your member organizations are rooted deeply in our communities, built very often on the strength of their faith, and they have been active partners with us in leveraging federal dollars with contributions from state, local, private, and volunteer sources.

I will not stand here and quote reams of statistics and budget figures, because you know them far better than I do. But there are two numbers I do want to focus on for a moment: 600,000 and 13 billion.

Today, at least 600,000 people in this country are homeless on any given night, including a significant number of families with children. Transport them to a single site and they would fill the city of Memphis, the eighteenth largest metropolitan area in the United States. They would populate the cities of Anaheim and Toledo combined. They would fill the Seattle Kingdome ten times over.

Then there is that other number, 13 billion. Since 1987, the federal government has funneled more than $13 billion into easing the plight of the homeless, and yes, we have done some good. We have made a difference for individuals, and put roofs over the heads of many who would otherwise go without shelter. But we have not made much progress.

It is time for the federal government to stop simply maintaining the status quo and invest in more permanent solutions to the challenge of homelessness.

As the federal government's primary provider of targeted homeless assistance, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has the lead federal role in finding homes for the homeless. That is appropriate: we have 36 years of experience in helping Americans find safe and affordable shelter. HUD's homeless funding represents nearly three-fourths of all targeted federal homeless assistance.

We are proud that HUD is having a powerful, positive impact in communities across this country.

But HUD is not the only federal agency that dedicates resources to the homeless. Seven others do as well. Between us, we administer 50 programs that assist the homeless, many of them providing the same types of services.

For example, HUD offers two separate programs that can be used to provide food and nutrition assistance to the homeless. Health and Human Services has seven, USDA, ten, the Veterans Administration, three, and so on. HUD manages eleven programs involving homeless housing, shelter, or rent assistance. HHS has eight of its own, and VA and even FEMA have separate housing programs.

Now, the fact that these seemingly overlapping efforts exist is not necessarily the problem, because they often do not overlap at all. In many cases, these agencies focus on specific areas that are unique to their own constituencies.

The problem is that these programs exist with some - but not nearly enough - cooperation between the agencies. And this lack of coordination comes at the expense of the homeless men and women we are trying to help.

Like William, for example, who lived in a HUD-supported AIDS housing program in Ohio. William had a part-time, minimum-wage job, but no health insurance. When he applied for Medicaid, he had to prove that he had monthly prescription costs he could not afford. The problem was, without Medicaid, he could not afford the prescriptions in the first place, and without proof of the prescription costs, he could not get his Medicaid. William was forced to go without his medication for several months, until a case manager finally resolved the problem.

You have heard stories like this far too often.

The General Accounting Office studied the federal response to homelessness in 1999. It concluded that, "although some coordination is occurring, and most agencies that administer targeted programs for the homeless have identified crosscutting responsibilities´┐Żthe agencies have not yet described how they will coordinate or consolidate their efforts at the strategic level."

I have been examining our approach to this problem since President Bush nominated me to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. I am convinced that interagency cooperation is key to maximizing our commitment to the homeless.

HHS, of course, provides the majority of homeless funding outside of HUD. I met early on with Secretary Thompson, and he shares my concerns that the way we have done things in the past is not the right path for the future. We agreed to form a joint task force between our two agencies to study - and strengthen - the way in which we cooperate to help the homeless. We have given our team free reign to look at old problems in new, creative ways.

The meetings continue, but some thoughtful ideas are starting to emerge.

As a first step toward improving the delivery of homeless services, I am announcing today that we are reactivating the Interagency Council on the Homeless.

I will be serving as Council chairman. I understand that the job always goes to the HUD Secretary, which means we do not have to bring it up before the Council for a vote. I was prepared to go out and campaign if I had to, and I was not taking anything for granted. I am from Florida, where we have a lot of experience counting votes.

The Council was established under the McKinney Act of 1987 to help streamline our approach to homelessness by coordinating the efforts of 16 federal agencies and other designated groups. Yet, the full Council has not met in more than five years.

It is time to reawaken this invaluable tool and put it back to work planning and coordinating federal homeless programs, reducing duplication, recommending improvements, and offering technical assistance to our partners at the community level. By concentrating solely on our response to homelessness, and reviewing every related program and activity in which the federal government is involved, the Council and its fulltime staff will benefit from a perspective that no single agency could have on its own.

Overall, the joint task force believes that the best way to help the chronically homeless is for HUD to focus its resources on providing permanent housing, and for HHS to concentrate on the supportive services it provides. But we have not decided how to get there, and it is too early to know if there will be any transfers of programs from one agency to the other.

We will listen to your input as these discussions continue, and above all, we will be guided by common sense.

HUD must keep the resources that it has in order to provide the shelter that only we can provide. If we focus on our core mission, we then must also expect HHS to be there with the services it must provide. Let me be clear: our goal is to maximize our resources, and be as effective as we can in the funding of all of our programs.

Apart from the work of the task force, I have outlined four additional steps we intend to take at HUD to refine - and improve - our approach to the homeless.

Number one: we are proposing legislative changes that will put our homeless assistance funds to work supporting HUD's core mission: the development of housing.

Statutory barriers that actually discourage the use of HUD's homeless dollars for housing development are an unfortunate byproduct of the McKinney-Vento Act. We are preparing legislation to remove those blockades. At the same time, we are drafting amendments that will provide real incentives for our applicants to seek a much greater share of their supportive service funding from the mainstream programs of HHS.

When enacted, the combined impact of these proposals will allow us to significantly expand the use of HUD dollars for housing the homeless.

The next challenge in solving the "problem that cannot be solved" is moving the chronically homeless into permanent housing and permanent care. That is step number two.

Many of the men and women who are homeless today have special needs, or face extreme personal circumstances that propel them in and out of homelessness. Some are substance abusers. Some suffer from mental illness. Others have lost their support network of family and friends or lack basic job skills.

What they have in common is that when there is no room in the homeless shelter, or the transitional housing runs out, many have nowhere else to go except back out on the streets. Their lives are revolving doors that again and again return them to homelessness, and hopelessness.

We need a fresh approach - one that demands permanent results, not just scattered victories that add up to little actual progress.

At HUD, we will work closely with our partners on the community, state, and federal levels to focus our permanent housing grants on ending the cycle of chronic homelessness. Our goal must be to help these people gain control of their circumstances and live in dignity.

As the third step in confronting this problem, we will make the goal of preventing homelessness as high a priority as that of housing the already homeless.

The Alliance has been a strong advocate for "closing the front door" of homelessness. That means ensuring that individuals who pass through mainstream social services - like the mental health, welfare, and criminal justice systems - do not move out of those services and back into homelessness. The idea is that helping these people land on their feet early on is less expensive, and less taxing on the system, than supporting them as members of the homeless population.

HUD administers a number of programs that touch the "potentially" homeless. For example, recipients of our Emergency Shelter Grants can dedicate up to 30 percent of the funding to homeless prevention efforts. That can include defraying rents and utility bills for families facing eviction or utility shut-offs, paying security deposits, and funding legal services.

Less than 10 percent of Emergency Shelter Grant dollars are used for homeless prevention activities, however. HUD will work to highlight their availability and usefulness by emphasizing homeless prevention in future national teleconferences.

I agree with you that prevention is the best medicine. I am encouraged by your enthusiasm for exploring new solutions. And I am open to studying your ideas, and how they could be put to work at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

And finally, at the same time we are working more closely with our partners on the federal level to better serve the homeless, we want to reach out to even more of the faith- and community-based organizations that are closest to the homeless. This is the fourth step.

I know from firsthand experience that when people are brought together by their faith, they can accomplish remarkable feats. President Bush is determined to tap America's great reservoir of faith.

In January, he established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and designated HUD as one of the lead agencies to carry out its work. We are honored - no other agency across the whole of the federal government has established any greater partnership than the one that exists between HUD and the faith-based organizations working to combat homelessness. In the last year alone, we have funded over 400 separate projects. They received just over $140 million in HUD homeless assistance funds.

Within HUD, we have created a Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives that is working to strengthen these partnerships and build new alliances between various levels of government and local organizations. Our first task has been to identify the barriers that make it difficult for many to compete for government resources. I will be presenting HUD's report to the President next week.

As the President said earlier this year at Notre Dame, "Government must be active enough to fund services for the poor and humble enough to let good people in local communities provide those services."

And yes, we can help support the work of homeless advocates in our neighborhoods by offering structure and funding, without destroying the essential community-based qualities that make you so effective.

With a renewed focus on cooperation between agencies, helping the chronically homeless, preventing homelessness instead of just treating it, and forging new partnerships that encourage even greater gains, we will be better armed to take on this challenge. You will not succeed alone. The federal government will not succeed alone, either. But together, we have a chance.

I hold the homeless in a special place in my heart, because I understand that so many of them have no control over the circumstances in which they find themselves. Before coming to Washington, my wife Kitty and I worked on occasion with the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida. I remember one year in particular, when we joined our friends at a local shelter and helped to serve Thanksgiving dinner. One would have expected the mood to be somber, and there was some of that. Yet, in the eyes of many of those men and women, but especially the children, I saw hope and the expectation of better things to come.

They are counting on us.

Yes, it will take optimism - and a healthy dose of strength, patience, and persistence - to wrestle homelessness from our cities. But these are qualities Americans have in abundance. And each time we have put our hearts toward a great national purpose, we have succeeded.

Guided by both compassion and common sense, we can succeed this time, too.

Thank you for your dedication, and may God bless your work.

Content Archived: March 12, 2010

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