Alliance President Keynote Remarks, 2015 National Conference on Ending Homelessness

These are the keynote remarks delivered by the Alliance's President and CEO Nan Roman on the first day of our 2015 National Conference on Ending Homelessness, July 15, 2015.

I am so happy to welcome you to our national conference on ending homelessness. The board and staff of the Alliance are deeply gratified that you have joined us here. And we thank all of you, also, for what you do to end homelessness across the nation.

This has been a year with many challenges. The gap between those who have and those who do not is growing; and many who are poor feel that their opportunities to escape poverty are shrinking. There are tremendous and persistent racial disparities. The cost of housing is increasing, but incomes are not keeping pace.

These are the big picture problems, and we have our challenges on the homelessness side of things, as well. At the national level, funding is getting harder to come by. The work that you are doing – coordinated assessment and entry, rapid re-housing, permanent supportive housing, critical time intervention, housing first, trauma informed care – are more sophisticated and effective. But they are also harder, requiring different skill sets, different administrative infrastructures, and different types of accountability.

So there are a lot of challenges, but there are also always opportunities that allow us to make progress. And you are a group that has been incredibly adept at finding those opportunities. Look at what you have accomplished!

New Orleans and Houston have ended homelessness among veterans. Los Angeles County re-vamped its entire family homelessness system, creating regional crisis-intake centers linked to TANF and other mainstream systems. Within the first year they used rapid re-housing to reduce the time families spent in crisis beds; and within the first six months they had re-housed more families than they typically re-housed in a year. Virginia re-tooled its family homelessness system to a rapid-re-housing approach, and reduced family homelessness by 25 percent.

In 2015: Minnesota decreased family homelessness 17 percent; New Jersey decreased homelessness 14 percent; Connecticut reduced homelessness nearly 12 percent; Long Beach, Calif. reduced street homelessness 18 percent and child homelessness 24 percent; San Jose decreased homelessness 15 percent; and Las Vegas reduced family homelessness 45 percent and veteran homelessness 44 percent (showing that you do not have to pick one or the other). Utah reduced chronic homelessness 91 percent in ten years; and Cleveland reduced it 75 percent in 9 years. Both are close to functional zero, if they are not there already.

There are so many exciting developments, I cannot even begin to name them all. The bottom line is that homelessness has continued to decrease, overall and in every subpopulation. That is the result of the smarter, harder, work you are doing.

There is no question that progress can be made, and you are making it. So what should we do next: what are the opportunities moving forward?

I am going to talk about next steps, but first I need to say something about three things that are on the front burner for us at the Alliance: two studies, and one piece of federal legislation.

The first study is the Department of Housing andUrban Development (HUD) Family Options Study that was released last week. This is an extraordinarily complex random assignment study on homeless families. The study compared the effectiveness and cost of crisis homeless interventions: rapid re-housing, transitional housing and usual care including shelter. The effectiveness information is not so strong, but the cost information is. Together, these tell us that rapid re-housing is the most promising crisis homelessness intervention. It performs at least as well as the other crisis interventions (shelter/usual care and transitional housing), and sometimes better. And it is by far the least expensive at $6,000 per family stay. And cost is important: not because we just want to do what is cheapest, but rather because, given equal effectiveness, lower costs mean that we can help more people. And we are leaving a lot of families behind.

The study also tells us that transitional housing is by far the most expensive intervention: $32,000 per family stay. Transitional housing’s outcomes, however, do not match its price tag. It does not have better outcomes than rapid re-housing or usual care. Our conclusion is that, given that its outcomes are similar but the cost is much higher, it makes sense for communities to look at shifting resources from transitional housing to less costly interventions like rapid re-housing so that they can help many more people.

The study also looked at housing subsidy, basically Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers. It reconfirmed what is well known: that housing subsidies end homelessness. Yes, they do. We need more of them, and that is a major priority for Hill Day. But until we get more of them, what you have to offer the family that shows up tonight is shelter, transitional housing or rapid re-housing. And on that score, rapid re-housing looks like the best bet.

Also on the subject of rapid re-housing, another report came out last week: The Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) FY 2014 Annual Report. This report describes a $300 million a year program, telling us who received what, and what the outcomes were.

What did SSV rapid re-housing accomplish? 47,000 veterans got rapid re-housing last year; 66,000 people, if you include their family members, because a third were living in families. The program did not cream: 57 percent of those served were disabled. The median time it took for participants to exit homelessness was three months. Around 80 percent of both sheltered and unsheltered veterans who got rapid re-housing obtained permanent housing. The cost of SSVF rapid re-housing (a standardized rapid re-housing intervention that includes the three core components) was about $3,000 per household. There is still work going on to assess exactly how many veteran households stayed housed, but indications are pretty clear that the vast majority of them did.

The third thing on our plate at the moment is the Homeless Children and Youth Act, focused on HUD. This Act addresses some very important and serious issues around doubled-up families, homeless youth, counterproductive administrative requirements, and lack of data. Unfortunately, its provisions do not solve these problems; in our estimation they could make the situation considerably worse by creating a vast new eligible population of doubled-up families (because this is not only about youth), gutting HUD’s ability to address problems strategically, and implying that no new resources are needed.

The Alliance opposes the Homeless Children and Youth Act, but completely supports the Senate’s more productive, solution-oriented alternative approach to these problems, focused on youth. Their bill provides money to expand the work on youth homelessness, builds the base of better data, and ensures that administrative requirements do not stand in the way of helping people in need. The Senate provides a more sensible approach to the important issues raised by the bill.

Moving on from the issues of the moment, what are our next steps? I think the thing we need to concentrate on is getting as much done as we possibly can during the final 18 months of the current Administration. The Obama Administration has set very clear and ambitious goals about what it hopes to accomplish on homelessness. It has put money and policy on the table to accomplish these goals. We have strong and knowledgeable partners with whom we have developed productive work relationships, and who are committed. After this Administration, it is not clear what will happen. No matter what party gets elected, however, the framework for working on homelessness is likely to be different.

So I would say that for the next 18 months we should act with urgency to take full advantage of our strong federal partnership and commitment to lock in as much of the infrastructure for ending homelessness as we can. What are some of the opportunities?

I want to ask you to join me in reflecting, for a moment, on the unique nature of the opportunity we have to end veteran homelessness. It is rare that we actually get the chance to solve a social problem, with resources, to scale. We are now at a point at which the Alliance believes we have the resources to end homelessness for every veteran.

We believe that we will have enough HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) vouchers to house all chronically homeless veterans, and, once that is done, to house quite a few veterans with chronic disabilities so that they do not become chronically homeless. We have the money; do we have the will and the skill to do it? We will have enough SSVF to house all of the non-chronic veterans and their families, and when they are housed to do prevention for many more veterans at-risk of homelessness. We have the money; do we have the will and the skill to do it? And we have significant Grant per Diem and other program resources for whom these two primary approaches will not work.

At least on paper we have the resources to solve the problem. But it is up to us to seize the opportunity to do it. This is on us. It is not easy. But if we manage it, it will prove that we can end homelessness. And if we fail, despite the fact that the resources are there, it will call into question our ability to achieve our goals.

Ending veteran homelessness is a first call to action.

A second thing is to lock in the strategies on families. I spoke about the data on interventions. Given rising rents and stagnant incomes, it is my belief that we are going to see increasingly more housing instability among poor individuals and families, which means many will experience short term homeless. We do not have a housing voucher for every poor household that has housing instability; we cannot afford to put every household that has housing instability into a transitional facility at a cost of $32,000; and we do not want to let people languish in shelter while they are trying to save enough to move back into an apartment. We have one other option: rapid re-housing. It is not perfect. It does not end poverty, provide permanent housing affordability, ensure long term stability; and there are many other things it also does not do. Importantly, however, neither do the other interventions we have on offer. Rapid re-housing does one important thing for the vast majority of people it serves: it ends their homelessness. Ending their homelessness is our job.

There are caveats. We have to do rapid re-housing right. We need to articulate and share a clearer, more effective and rigorous service package for rapid re-housing. We have a lot to learn from each other about recruiting and retaining landlords. The statistics I talked about earlier show that, while a short term intervention works for many, it is not enough for everyone. We have to work together to figure out how to identify the families and individuals who need more; for whom a lighter package of assistance is not enough. We have to learn what to do differently for younger families, for families with more children, and for families with a disabled parent.

So over the next 18 months we need to really lock in on rapid re-housing. We can do more of it as the regular response to homelessness. And, importantly, we need to deliberately and intentionally be learning from each other (and from local data) how to do it better.

A third thing to focus on is homeless youth. The administration and Congress have really increased their attention to the issues of homelessness among youth. HUD has been called to the table most recently, and as I think that the Senate HUD appropriations bill has some wonderful provisions that supply money and support some of the needed infrastructure to get HUD more engaged.

HUD is important, but while homeless youth certainly have housing needs, they also have very considerable service needs, and there are many service interventions that could prevent and end their homelessness. The place to look for services is the Department of health and Human Services (HHS). It is really that agency that should be leading the effort on youth homelessness, and where we should be focusing of our attention.

We have, of course, the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act programs, and we need to beef those up in the next 18 months. HHS also has the whole child welfare system, where a lot more engagement needs to happen. Child welfare could be using its resources to meet the needs of homeless youth under 18. It can provide family intervention to keep families financially and emotionally intact so that kids do not become homeless. It could be addressing the reasons that foster care is a feeder system into homeliness. HHS also has the TANF system, which is designed to support families and children and help them connect to employment. And finally, home visiting, in particular, is a highly effective intervention that could do a lot more to help the young families establish viable households. (Many young parents are currently establishing their households through the homelessness system, which is not a good idea.) And finally we need to establish a coordinated system in which the Department of Education, HUD, and HHS are all pulling in the same direction.

It is a disgrace that we are not serving half of the kids we already count as homeless. We cannot be sitting here ten years from now, having lost a whole generation of vulnerable kids, asking how we are going to end youth homelessness. We need to lock in on this opportunity over the next 18 months.

Finally, we need to take advantage of the current administration to really lock in on opportunities that the Affordable Care Act gives us to ensure that our consumers, especially those with disabilities, are getting the treatment and services they need. The challenge of getting services for permanent supportive housing has long been a barrier to our expansion of this solution to chronic homelessness. The Affordable Care Act and the expansion of Medicaid offer not only the chance to fund these services, but also to get people services and treatment before they become chronically homeless.

An informational bulletin was issued by the Center for Medicaid and SHIP Services (HHS) a few weeks ago clarifying what housing-related services for people with disabilities can be funded by Medicaid. Financing services for vulnerable people through the Affordable Care Act is difficult, incredibly complex, and different in every state. The negotiation for what services will be available and how they will be available and financed is going on in every state. Many organizations will have to consider a whole host of new things in order to be able to get services funded, including staff capacities, licensing, coverage, data systems, etc. This is difficult, but extraordinarily important work. There is innovation going on in every state and in many communities. There is a lot of information about this at the conference. I think we should be looking at the next 18 months with a sense of urgency about how to get these systems established while we have a good opportunity.

These are not all of the things that we should lock in on over the next 18 months, but they are a few priorities.

In closing, it feels as if we are at a bit of a moment with respect to the national discussion of poverty and income inequality. There are many reasons that this may be true, but the media, President Obama, and corporate CEOs are all speaking about the need to do something about racial and income inequality. And the Pope is coming in the fall with his challenge to the faith community, and to all of us, to remember the moral core of so many religious teachings: that of love and responsibility for the poor.

The issues of justice and equality are your calling; you may not conceptualize it that way, but in my view you live it that way. You answer to the moral calling and you do it insisting that justice and equality are not empty promises, but something real and tangible for real people.

We have a special moral call to action before us today. We cannot abandon a generation of youth because we do not have the will to figure out how to help them. We cannot be given the tools and resources to end homelessness among veterans and fail, through our own lack of urgency and determination, to achieve that goal. We cannot neglect to return the children who are homeless tonight to housing as quickly as possible. As imperfect as that housing may be, it is still better than being homeless.

We can be, we must be, and you are, part of the movement to end injustice, inequality, and poverty in America. You are not just talking about it. You are doing it, to the greatest degree that you are able.

This is the work that you will be undertaking over the next days: assuming your responsibility not just to demand justice and equality, but to create it or at least some measure of it. So thank you all for being here. We are honored to join with you in this work, and I hope our efforts will help you achieve your goals.