National Alliance to End Homelessness
"Taking On the Problem That 'Cannot Be Solved'"
Remarks prepared for delivery by
Secretary Mel Martinez
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
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,
I almost forgot to mention that she just bought a
four-bedroom home. Felecia is obviously on her way to living the
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
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
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�the
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
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,
We need a fresh approach - one that demands permanent
results, not just scattered victories that add up to little actual
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
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
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
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
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
Content Archived: March 12, 2010