Opening Plenary: Innovations and Solutions for Ending Unsheltered Homelessness Conference, March 2024

Good afternoon everyone!  It is so wonderful to see you all here in San Francisco for the Alliance’s 2024 Innovations and Solutions to Ending Unsheltered Homelessness Conference.

We are grateful to have you here on the West Coast with us this week. And we have a great few days in store for you – with a variety of sessions that cover a lot of topics you all have been asking for – from improving shelter to expanding affordable housing options, and lots of things in between.

We also have some really great plenary speakers, including the Alliance staff you know and love, as well as Jemine Bryon from HUD, California’s new Secretary of Business, Consumer Services and Housing – and former CEO of All Home – Tomiquia Moss, Mark Horvath from Invisible People, Juha Kahila from the Y-Foundation in Finland, and our close partner Regina Cannon from Arc4Justice. We will end with a fantastic panel of leaders from across our sector – working in city, state, and federal roles – with lived experience of homelessness that includes Dr. Va Lecia Adams Kellum from Los Angeles, Sarah Fox from Connecticut, Nate Fields from New Orleans, and Nichele Carver from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.


I started in this field as a VISTA volunteer in 1992. I was fresh out of college, all excited about changing the world.

Do you remember that feeling? Your excitement about changing the world for the better?

Sometimes I can call it up so clearly. Sometimes it is hard to tap into – because we are in a tough moment. We need to find the rays of light, the joy in what we do to get through these moments. We need to find our inspiration and our voice to make the change we want to see.

I think it’s important to know that we are all in this together. All of us. We have to be in it together. So I am starting today by sharing something that inspired me recently.

I don’t often share super personal stuff in this type of space, but I am going to break that rule a bit today.

It has been a hard few months for me. The 2023 Point-in-Time Count data – a 12 percent national increase in homelessness and increases across all populations – brought us to a number we haven’t seen since 2007. That was the year I started at HUD, and for a moment it felt like all this work I have dedicated my life to could be for nothing. On the personal side, I have also had some challenging family stuff. That included the death of a beloved Uncle – Tío to me in Spanish – Mario.

And because of these challenges, I was having a lot of trouble writing these remarks, mostly because I wasn’t feeling the inspiration to get up here and bring joy and light in the way I wanted to.

My Tío Mario was a Catholic priest – serving in an order dedicated to education. He spent most of his life working to ensure that kids all over Latin America have access to education, including work in some of the remotest and poorest regions of the world. He touched a lot of people with his generous spirit, and as an adult I have felt a kinship with him beyond our familial bond due to the mission-oriented work we shared. When he passed, I felt some of my light dim.

Last week I went to his funeral in Miami. People came from around the world to honor him, and as I watched people pour into the church for his service, I felt some of that light start to come back just from that outpouring of love for him.

Then the head of his order told a story I had never heard before. Now, the service was mostly in Spanish, so I hope you all can forgive me if I get any of these details wrong[i]

At one point, the Pope wrote a letter telling the order that the schools they had worked so hard to support had to be closed. It was devastating news. But in the letter to the order that broke the news, the brothers were asked to keep fighting.

To keep working towards their goals. To continue to approach their mission with joy and love. The letter was signed with a flourish.

The brothers did what the letter said. And although it took some years and lots of effort, the head of the order reported that eventually the schools were re-established and their work got back on track.

I needed to hear that story of determination and perseverance and joy.  I needed it right at that moment to help clarify my own aspirations.

He went on to say that he learned three important things from my uncle that he carries with him.

  1. Always stay united.
  2. Never lose your joy.
  3. Keep fighting for what you believe, even through the hardest of times.

I could not have had a more timely and needed intervention if I had asked for one. It brought back that feeling of wanting and believing that we can change the world. Sometimes it takes time. Sometimes there are bumps in the road. Sometimes the bumps feel like mountains. But if we stay united, don’t lose the joy and keep fighting for what we believe, we DO make progress.

I am passing the gift of those words on to you today because they reflect what we are doing here together this week.

  • We are connecting with each other so we can get and stay united in our work to end homelessness.
  • We are bringing the joy and positive energy while we are here together, and
  • We are doubling down on what we know works and finding new ways to fight for what we collectively believe. Because we are leading with love and respect for people who are here, people who work across the sector, and the people whom we serve through our work.

We need to keep those things front of mind because 2024 is going to be a pivotal year for us as a sector and as a movement.

We have a presidential election, and important elections at the local and state levels. We have a Supreme Court case that will determine how people can legally be treated simply for being homeless. We have powerful people taking aim at evidence-based practices and looking for ways to further marginalize people.

But there are also many people across our sector who are fighting for what they believe and changing their corners of the world for good. For example, when you walk around in Helsinki, you don’t see people living unsheltered. That is powerful, and it shows that it can be done. AND, it can be done without arresting and fining people for simply existing in public.

This year has to be the year that we make the case and bring people into this fight with us— to advocate for more resources and solid policy, to educate our elected leaders on solutions that work, and to push back on punitive and ill-conceived strategies that create more harm.

Homelessness and affordable housing is on the agenda this year in a way I certainly have not seen in my career.

What we do with this attention and opportunity is up to us.

If we seize it, if we stay unified, if we hold on to our joy and keep fighting for what we believe we can have big and small victories.

We can defeat bad legislation. We can develop and work with local champions to get access to the housing and services we need. We can push Congress to support our workforce and make it easier for people to access housing and services. We can lean into what we know works and innovate when needed to get people rehoused. We can prevent their homelessness to begin with.

But have no doubt – if WE don’t speak up, others will. Folks who have different values and different motivations will be heard, unless we make our voices louder and bring others along with us.

At the Alliance, we know how high the stakes are.

Over the next few months you will see us begin to roll out components of a three year plan to meet the moment we are in.

First and foremost, we will be maintaining and strengthening the things we do best. That means supporting Continuums of Care, providers, and front-line staff to do their jobs with excellence. To find the balance so many of you are struggling with, between implementing short term strategies to keep people safe and pursuing long term solutions that will end this crisis.

  • That means providing the research and analysis you rely on to do your jobs and make the case to your local elected officials and leaders. I hope folks have seen the research team’s recent reports on front line staff, on homelessness among gender expansive people, and on HUD’s special unsheltered NOFO.
  • Supporting the field also means providing direct support to communities to connect as many people as possible to housing and services through our Capacity Building team’s work. Webinars on hot topics, our expanded Center for Learning and YouTube Channel, and more on-site technical assistance is on the agenda as we move forward.
  • And supporting you all means more assistance for state and local advocates in states like Wisconsin, Indiana, Kansas, and Tennessee – who are staying unified and fighting back against bad state laws and winning.
  • It means educating legislators and key community members, and holding even our friends accountable for the actions they are – or are not – taking at the federal level. It means pushing for more affordable housing and the services people need, like the mental health and substance use services people want but can’t access.
  • It means releasing policy tools that will help you all navigate challenging situations at the state and local levels.

And lastly, providing support to the field also means learning from you and telling others about your incredible work. Let me take a couple of minutes here to share some things we have been hearing about.


  • A regional collaboration in Santa Clara County, California worked together to pass Measure A, an affordable housing bond that is providing nearly $1 billion to fund affordable housing units across ten different cities in the county.
  • Folks in Kentucky are fighting back against a heinous new piece of legislation that would not only criminalize people for camping on public land, but allow landowners to use deadly force against unhoused people as part of a “stand your ground” law. And at the same time the Balance of State Kentucky CoC also won a HUD Special NOFO grant that will allow them to expand street outreach and create more than 200 new units.
  • Newark, New Jersey was one of the communities that bucked the national trend of increasing homelessness with a nearly 58 percent drop in its unsheltered population in the 2023 PIT Count. Their elected leaders, CoC, and providers are UNIFIED in their approach to increase access to housing and services for people experiencing homelessness in their community.
  • Chicago worked closely with people with lived expertise to design and get funding for a new project that will provide stabilization housing for folks who want trauma informed services before going into permanent supportive housing.
  • And here in San Francisco, funding made available through the state’s Homekey program to buy market rate buildings when the market took a downturn, allowed the City to both prevent blight and rehouse people.

I could go on. There are so many examples from all over the country of communities seizing the moment and leading with love and evidence to make the progress we need.

I have now been at the Alliance a little more than a year and a half. In that time, I have been thinking a lot about our value proposition. So has the entire team – because we know we need to meet the moment we are in right now.

In addition to doubling down on the incredibly important work of directly supporting the field in the ways I just described, we plan to do more.

We plan to work more deeply alongside partners in key states – in addition to our existing work here in California. That means bringing all of our tools to bear in states where we think we can have a strong impact. More to come on those plans.

We are elevating our communications work in a way that reaches people across the nation who could be our allies, but aren’t quite there yet. And at the same time making sure CoCs and advocates have the tools they need to be strong ambassadors for our sector. Because negative rhetoric stalls our progress. We need to use as many tools and approaches as possible to reach the right people – the people who can be moved to join us with the right message.

And in a shameless plug – I encourage you all to check out our new Instagram.

But these efforts aren’t going to be enough if we can’t access more housing to get people off the streets, and end their homelessness. That means partnering consistently and strategically with national affordable housing industry leaders and developers to make sure that not only is affordability and housing supply increased, but that the people we serve have access to that housing as it is created.

And maybe most importantly, we are doing all of this – whether it is new work or deepening the work we have done for many years – by centering love, equity and lived experience in all we do.

We are going to need all of these components working together going forward.

At one time not that long ago, the sector stopped talking about managing homelessness and set goals toward ending it. We made progress in key areas. As a nation, we had faith that with the right policies, resources and leadership we could accomplish this audacious goal.

But other factors have taken over. The housing market, the economic and behavioral health effects of the pandemic, the divisiveness that has seeped into the issue we all care about, have all eroded the sense that homelessness is solvable. The public has begun to lose faith in our nation’s ability or will to do it.

But we haven’t.

What we are seeing is that when faith is lost, bad decisions get made. People get hurt, marginalized, criminalized, othered. It makes the work you all do, the work that we do, that much harder.

We have to restore that faith. In our systems, in our people, in the evidence-based approaches that work when they are funded at scale.

How do we do that?

We do it by staying unified, by not losing our joy, by fighting for what we believe even in the most challenging of circumstances.


  • Center people closest to the problem we seek to solve, and embed equity in our policies and practices.
  • Stay true to the policies and practices that work. And we adapt or pivot when things don’t work.
  • We innovate and try new things when we need to.
  • We educate and communicate with people – not just the people who agree with us but people outside of our circles who need better information to know what policies and practices to support.
  • We push for increased investments by federal, state, and local governments in housing that is accessible and affordable for all people with extremely low incomes.
  • AND we advocate just as hard to bring affordable and accessible healthcare and service options to scale that meet people where they are.  
  • We support our workforce by advocating for the things – like pay and other types of support – that they need to maintain stability and do their jobs well.
  • We learn from and support each other.

And what we need from you is partnership to make sure we are doing everything we can to meet the needs of folks experiencing homelessness and the people who serve them across the country.

  • Keep supporting programs that work in your communities. Maintain fidelity to the evidence-based models that act as the foundation of our ability to get folks into housing.
  • Continue to focus on the equity work that is so important to our progress.
  • Partner with and hire people who have lived experience of homelessness and housing instability.
  • Support local and national efforts to combat policies and laws that criminalize people just for existing in public spaces. Please join our network to stay informed on what is happening.
  • Act as ambassadors for this work with your local leaders, including your members of Congress. You all are the most effective messengers we have, and this is the year we need your voice more than ever.
  • Make connections with each other and with us so we can do this work together.

I will say one last thing about my Tío Mario to close us out.

As the head of his order was winding down the eulogy, he named one other important lesson he learned from my uncle.

He said – when you return home, make what you know and believe a reality.

That feels particularly important for a conference like this one. We can talk and learn, but if we don’t put those words and teachings into action we are wasting our energy. What you learn here shouldn’t stay here. I hope this week you all feel unified, find joy and walk away on Wednesday with tools to fight for what you believe in. But most importantly, I hope that when you return home you can make what you learn and believe a reality.

Thank you all for being here, thank you for your time, thanks in advance to all of our speakers and to the entire Alliance team for putting this really strong agenda together. I hope you all have a great conference.

[i] Some of these details have been changed since the conference to correct for any misunderstanding I may have had in translation from Spanish.