Welcome to Washington! We are very grateful to all of you for coming, and for all of the work that you do. I am going to reflect, in just a moment, on the impact of that work. But first I want to congratulate and thank you for being here this week to think together and learn together about what works best to end homelessness for people, about how to address those endless challenges and roadblocks that the work seems to get thrown in front of you, and about how to find and seize the opportunities you are presented with to move forward. It is a challenging moment.
The country, and indeed the world, seems to be in turmoil. Much of it is being driven by so many people’s absolute frustration and fear at the increasing level of inequity that we experience—economic inequality, racial inequity and discrimination. People everywhere want safety and opportunity for themselves and their families. They want solid ground beneath them and a playing field that is fair and that they understand. We all want these in order to have a chance to better our families and ourselves.
So many people here in the U.S. and elsewhere, rightly or wrongly, do not see that solid ground, that fair playing field, or that better future. Instead, they feel that the trajectory for themselves and their children is leaning toward less stability, less opportunity, and less safety.
This is sad, and it is negative. It drives fear and strife, and we see that playing out in different ways here in the U.S. and around the world.
But we are not helpless in the face of this. This is something that we, you in this room, can and do take action on every day, in your work. We push back.
But we have to do more. This is shaping up to be a moment of change for all of us, a time of decision with the potential to make choices about our future.
The most literal change that is happening in our world is that the Obama Administration, after eight years of pushing hard to end homelessness and providing a tremendous amount of leadership and resources, is winding down.
We have with us many of the exceptional people who, over the last eight years, have worked with fierce determination to reduce and end homelessness at:
• The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH);
• The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
; • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS);
• The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and;
• Other federal agencies.
Thanks to those of you who are here for your extraordinary work and dedication.
What we’ve done so far
Although Congress has been a difficult place the last few years, the progress that has been made on homelessness absolutely could not have happened without Congress, a few determined Members from both sides of the aisle, and their extraordinary staffs. We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.
When there is a change and we have choices to make, it is good to reflect on where we stand and how we got here in order to figure out what to do next. What have you – providers, public officials, elected officials, consumers – accomplished since Obama was inaugurated in 2009? Between 2009 and 2015, our most recent numbers, you have:
• Reduced homelessness 10%
• Reduced homelessness among individual adults 9%
• Reduced family homelessness 13%
• Chronic homelessness went down 22%
• Unsheltered went down 24%
• Veteran homelessness went down 35%
We do not have the baseline data to assess our progress with homeless youth, although tremendous work has been done by talented providers all across the country.
During this same period:
• The population went up 5%, •
The rental vacancy rates fell to 7.1%
• Average rents have gone up
• Median household income went down 3%
So there were more people, lower incomes, but higher rents. All things being equal, the number of people who are homeless should have gone up. But it did not. It went down. Why? Because of your work.
You worked smarter. You improved your outcomes and this led to more resources. You are responsible for the better lives of many people. You turned the ship on a significant social problem. Of course, not all work is created equal. What were some of the key things that mattered?
First, there is the tremendous effort to end veteran homelessness. There was and is immense public and political will to help veterans. Congress and the Administration did a massive ramp up to end veteran homelessness, and put a lot of money behind it. New interventions were added to the toolbox, especially Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF).
At the local level, the coordination between VA Medical Centers and Continuums of Care was unprecedented. Tremendous organizing efforts were undertaken including the White House Mayors Challenge and the wonderful work of Community Solutions and others. The resultant reductions in veteran homelessness are really driving the overall reductions in homelessness. The message here is that with adequate resources, the right tools (rapid re-housing, permanent supportive housing, outreach and crisis beds), improved local coordination, a Housing First approach, and a sense of urgency, you can end homelessness.
The work to end chronic homelessness continued, increasingly with the promise of Medicaid to fund services. We made progress, but we did run into some roadblocks toward the end. We did not get the money from Congress to go all the way to scale and solve the problem. That is on them.
On us is the fact that a huge proportion of the people living in permanent supportive housing were not chronically homeless, and likely did not need permanent supportive housing to end their homelessness. For example, of the 320,000 units of permanent supportive housing that the federal government funds, over one-third are occupied by families. There is just no evidence that that many families require permanent supportive housing. We do need more money, but we also need to do a much better job of targeting.
Another important development was the emergence of rapid re-housing. This was accomplished through SSVF for veterans and through the Continuum of Care. Rapid re-housing is not a perfect intervention, it’s not right for everyone, and there is a lot we still do not know about it. But what we do know is that it is more effective than shelter or transitional housing at lower cost.
By extensively using rapid re-housing you have not only driven down the number of homeless veterans, but homelessness overall. By taking the very difficult and painful steps to reallocate Continuum resources to rapid re-housing, a job not yet done, you have driven down family and individual homelessness. Rapid re-housing has been an important new housing tool, one that arose from innovation at the local level. It creates flow-through in the shelter system, making more shelter beds available for people in crisis. And it has been an important step forward in our effectiveness.
Finally, a key step has been the shift from a program-by-program approach to a systems approach. Again, it has been painful. And again, it is not yet done. But you are doing that hard work, and the better targeting that has resulted in ensuring that higher need people get the more intensive interventions and lower need people get less intensive interventions. This lets us help more people and end homelessness faster.
So political will, successfully linking with the mainstream, building skill, new tools and innovation, and targeting have made the difference.
In summary, what you have done in the past eight years—with the help of a supportive Administration and resources from Congress; through tremendous hard and sometimes painful work; and against the trends all pushing the opposite direction –- is to reduce homelessness. Not as much as we all may have wanted. Not everywhere. Not solving every problem. But still, it is quite an accomplishment! Congratulations and thanks! We have a solid base to stand on, and from which to move forward.
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That takes us to the question: what is next? We have an election coming up and a new Administration and Congress arriving in six months. Many of you will have new elected leadership at home in your states, cities and towns. We have been on a path for eight years. It is my observation that new leaders often want to forge a new path. We need to think about how to get homelessness on the agenda of the new Administration and Congress; and you need to think about how to do that at home.
We need to think about what we have done and how a new path can take off from there to make progress in the future. That requires us to be frank about some of the things that we need to work on: our shortfalls as well as our successes. Because, while we have done a lot, we still have only reduced homelessness ten percent, and there is a lot more to do.
We have an inefficient children and family system that we are struggling to reform and that is poorly integrated with the mainstream programs that link families to employment and services. Far too little is done to help stabilize children and families in housing so that they do not become homeless.
We have a very poor system for homeless women and men on their own—the majority of people who are homeless.
One third of people who are homeless have no shelter at all. Encampments are emerging and this is unacceptable. Homeless individuals are also poorly linked to mainstream workforce and employment programs that are the primary ways they will exit homelessness.
While we have made progress on chronic and veteran homelessness, we need more resources in some areas, and we need to use our resources better in others.
We have only begun to understand and ramp up on homeless youth. Major issues remain unaddressed, including the role of HHS in ending youth homelessness.
So, there is much more to do.
We need to make an argument to a new Administration about why they should prioritize homelessness and what they can accomplish. We need to show them a new path. We need to find the areas of opportunity and use them to push forward.
Proposals for the next Administration
Here is what the National Alliance to End Homelessness plans to propose to the incoming Administration.
Homelessness is a type of housing crisis experienced by very poor people. The homelessness system is a crisis response system. It responds to crises caused by deep poverty, racism, and inequality. It responds to lack of opportunity, violence, and prejudice. And it responds to a profoundly inadequate public system of care that too often fails the most vulnerable people.
However, while the homeless systems’ goal is to end crises, the help it gives has a much more significant impact on those it serves. It is crisis help, but because people are resourceful and poverty is fluid, it is often enough not just to end their crises, we need to set people on the path to wellbeing. It often does not take much help for people to get back on their feet and thrive: it just takes the right help. But make no mistake, people’s homelessness must be ended before they can get on with all the other things that we, as a nation value and hope for them.
The good news is that we know how to end homelessness. We can end homelessness. And it is right that the United States should end homelessness. Accordingly, we propose the following goals to be achieved by the end of the new Administration.
1. First, that no child will be homeless. We must ensure that children have the stability they need, that their families are supported, and that we break any cycle of multi-generational homelessness. This means that if children and their families lose their housing, they will very quickly be returned to housing, and that we will do a much better job of preventing them from becoming homelessness. And I would challenge us here in this room, starting today, that no infant, at all, should be unsheltered. Surely we can make a commitment that from now on, if we find an infant in a car, on the street, in a campground that we will find a place to house them now?
2. Second, every woman and man who becomes homeless has a decent, supportive, but short-term accommodation where they can stay on their way back to housing and services help in the community. No one will be unsheltered or un-helped.
3. Third, we will have finished the job of ending veteran and chronic homelessness. We know what to do. This is a matter of achieving scale.
4. And finally, we will have what we need, in terms of data and evidence on interventions, as well as resources and capacity, to have ended homelessness among youth and young adults.
In this way, we will achieve the goal of ending homelessness by the end of the next Administration. We have earlier target dates on some of these, and we will not abandon those. But if we fail to make those targets, we fall back on these commitments.
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I want to speak for a moment about the first goal—that no child will be homeless. Why is this the moment to focus on this goal? Because there is need, and there is opportunity.
There are 65,000 households with about 125,000 children who are literally homeless at a point in time. These are families living in cars and campgrounds and shelters and other temporary homeless facilities. We know that is not the whole story on the numbers. We have other data.
Schools are a critical player in identifying and aiding homeless and at-risk children and according to the Department of Education; in the course of a year around 1.4 million school children were homeless. Only a minority of them, 19 percent, were literally homeless (unsheltered or in homeless facilities).
Eighty one percent were doubled up or in hotels and motels. And of course, this does not include very young children who are not yet in school, or children who have left school or not disclosed that they are homeless. This gives us an idea of the scope and the number of children whose families have severe housing problems in a year.
I think we must not underestimate the impact that the homeless crisis system can have on the well-being of children and families. Absent a significant increase in affordable housing (and I hope there will be such an increase) it is likely that the housing problems of poor households will worsen in the near future.
If housing affordability problems worsen, there will be more housing instability. If there is more housing instability, more and more families will become homeless. If families are increasingly unstable, and increasingly lose their housing, we need to be the system that quickly bounces them back into housing; not a system that captures and keeps them. If they lose their housing again next year – and they very well may – we should bounce them back again. And again. Because even though housing instability is bad, homelessness is worse, and families cannot solve their problems while they are homeless. If we do not move people through our crisis system, we will have more families on the streets.
Is this putting people on a housing roller coaster? I do not think so. Getting housing does, eventually, lead to increased employment, income, stability, and well-being.
So child and family homelessness is a big problem, but we know what we need to do. We have built a system to help end family homelessness, and it has made progress. But it is not good enough, and we need to invest in making it better. We need to speed up the process of getting families back into housing and supported in the community. This means we will need more housing resources, and new housing tools.
But we must not needlessly prolong homelessness or delay families’ returns to housing, support networks, employment and school. In the increasingly brief time families are homeless, we need to ensure that there is enough crisis accommodation for them, and that it is adequate to meet the needs of children, and resourced to focus on exits and connection to employment and support.
We must make more progress on coordination with mainstream systems of care that can support children, health, education, and employment. Mainstream programs can do things like screen for homelessness and housing instability and have protocols to respond when they are found. Mainstream systems (not just the homeless system) can make reducing homelessness a performance indicator.
These are some of the needs and things we can do.
In addition to need, I think a reason to act now is that there is an opportunity. Understanding about the importance of housing to children’s health, success in school, and overall wellbeing is growing, supported by evidence. The political will, including a focus on children and families, and employment and jobs, is growing.
We know how to solve child and family homelessness, and the scope of the problem makes going to scale on the solutions doable. There is a real opportunity, in this period of change, to make big progress on this issue.
There is work to be done, but so much opportunity
So we want the new Administration and Congress to commit that by the time they leave Washington:
• No child or their family will be homeless;
• Any single adult – woman or man – who becomes homeless will be taken in to a supportive and decent shelter that will help them rapidly return to housing, on their own or with others;
• The proven solutions to chronic and veteran homelessness are taken to scale, solving those problems; and
• Homelessness among youth and young adults will be a thing of the past.
Getting these commitments alone will not be enough, of course. We will need action and specific strategies. We will work with you and our partners at national housing, health care, child and family, education and youth organizations, among many others, to craft action steps. These activities will give you a taste.
• We are working with a broad coalition of family, education, health care and housing organizations to advance the proposal for $11 billion in mandatory spending to help homeless families. Short-term action is needed this year, but this is a long-term prospect.
• We are working with our affordable housing colleagues to take advantage of what feels like a moment of opportunity on the affordable housing front to propose a to-scale housing initiative that would stop the ridiculous practice of allowing millions of vulnerable families and individuals to struggle just to put a roof over their heads. This is especially because not housing them has economic and social costs that far outweigh what it would cost to house them. We are determined and indeed optimistic that we can make progress here!
• We are working with the broad coalition at A Way Home America to scope the breadth and approach to youth and young adult homelessness, and to lock in on and fully implement a set of investments to end it.
There is so much work to be done, and so much opportunity.
What do we need from you, moving forward?
First, vote in November, and make sure that every client and tenant is registered and encouraged to vote. It is going to matter who is in the White House, who is in Congress, who is your governor, state legislator, mayor, and Council member. It will matter to you, and to those you serve.
If you are a nonprofit, there is no prohibition against you encouraging and helping people to register, or educating people about the voter process. There is no prohibition against you sponsoring candidate forums or asking candidates questions. What you are prohibited from doing is engaging in partisan politics, endorsing a candidate, or ranking them on your particular issue.
Second is to commit yourselves to innovation. Many things we do know how to fix, but there are plenty of areas for innovation so that we can do things better. We need to do much more on employment. We need a more organized approach to helping people share housing – the route that so many people who are not homeless take to address housing affordability. We need innovation around encampments, and housing models for people who do not want the responsibilities of their own apartment, but want a lower demand, simpler place to live that rents by the day, week or month. We need innovation around housing for episodically homeless people, and always more innovation around effective service delivery.
And a third is to advocate for change. Now at this critical moment of change. The problems are huge: racial discrimination and inequity, income inequality, low wages, high housing costs, and dysfunctional politics. But there will be change, and we have to be part of the movement – through action and advocacy – to push that change in the right direction. You have made progress on homelessness. In that sense, you are pushing in the right direction and already fighting for justice. You have made that progress against the trends that are pushing in the opposite direction. This is due to your commitment, your skill, your innovation and your determination.
But we are far from done. We can’t rest on our laurels. We all have to do more and we have to do better.
Homelessness is not the simplest problem, but it is also not that complicated. Housing ends homelessness. It also helps people get on with all the other things that will allow them to achieve well-being and self-fulfillment. The first step is ending homelessness. The solutions to homelessness are not all that complex, but implementing them can be. Political will, your skill and resources are what is needed.
We have a new opportunity to get those.
We know we can solve this problem. So we will ask for what we need so that no child, no family, no young person, no one in our country, our already great country, is homeless.