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Remarks of Secretary Shaun Donovan at the 2010 NAEH Annual National Conference on Ending Homelessness

Hyatt Regency
Washington, D.C.
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Thank you, Barbara--for that generous introduction, for your leadership at the Interagency Council, and for your friendship.

I want to thank Nan for her remarkable leadership with the Alliance as well as her board, particularly Co-Chairs Susan Baker and Mike Lowry. Five different HUD Secretaries have had the benefit of working with her to end homelessness--and I say this in all sincerity, Nan:

With the work of everyone in this audience, I intend to be one of the last.

It's time to finish the work you've started.

Let me also say a word of thanks to my good friend from New York City, Roseanne Haggerty. Yesterday, she announced Common Ground's "100,000 Homes" campaign at this conference to create housing opportunities for 100,000 long-term homeless individuals and families in the next three years.

Already, nearly three dozen cities have joined the campaign and 4,000 people have been housed. Roseanne, you remind us once again that the fight to end homelessness is not only waged at the local level, on the front lines--but won there as well.

And lastly, let me again thank Barbara.

You know, it was a great experience being here last year--to speak to you for the first time as HUD Secretary and outline President Obama's vision before the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

But this year feels different.

It feels different because of people like Barbara Poppe, who, as she said, was part of this Conference last year--having just decided not to pursue the position of executive director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness.

It wasn't about her commitment to the issue. At the time, Barbara was living in Ohio, worried about what taking on this responsibility would mean to her husband and teenage son back home.

But when she heard this Administration's vision on homelessness--and that we were serious about crafting a federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness--she decided she had to be a part of the team crafting it.

And thank goodness she has. The second she took the reins at USICH in November, Barbara made getting this plan to the finish line the cause of her life--all the while commuting back and forth every week to Columbus.

Of all the meetings and conversations I've had with her these last 8 or 9 months, one sticks out in particular.

Many here will remember the "Snowpocalypse" that shut down Washington, DC and the Federal government for almost a week this past winter.

Well, that wasn't going to stop Barbara Poppe.

At her urging, Secretaries Sebelius, Shinseki and I met with the White House for two hours about this plan on one of those so-called "snow days."

Now, I would expect someone from Columbus, Ohio not to be scared by a little bad weather--even two or three feet of it.

But what was remarkable about this meeting and so many others that would follow was that, for the first time, it wasn't advocates in the room, talking about how to end rather than "manage" homelessness--it was cabinet secretaries and senior leadership from across the Federal government.

It was that kind of effectiveness that allowed us last month to unveil not just a "vision" for ending homelessness--but a plan that actually will.

So, when I tell you that this year feels different--I say it because for the first time in your 27-year existence, the Federal government doesn't just feel like a partner with this organization, but a full-fledged, card-carrying member of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

A Preventable Tragedy

Of course, the Federal government never would have gotten there the leadership in communities around the country who made homelessness a national priority.

When I joined you last year, we discussed how less than a decade ago, it was widely believed that those who struggle with chemical dependency and mental illness--who often cycle from shelters to jails to emergency rooms--would always be homeless. Some even suggested these individuals wanted to be homeless.

But from rural Mankato (man-KAY-toh), Minnesota to urban San Francisco, countless leaders in our neighborhoods and communities refused to believe the chronically ill, long-term homeless couldn't be helped.

Partnering with local and state agencies and the private and nonprofit sectors, hundreds of communities led the way with their own plans--combining housing and supportive services to reduce the number of chronically homeless persons by more than a third inside of five years.

In so doing, you proved what just a few years ago seemed nearly impossible:

That we can end homelessness in America.

That we can house anyone--and that our challenge now is to house everyone.

Well, with your help--and the help of mayors, housing and social service providers, advocates, and the thousands of stakeholders we spoke to and received comments from on our website to develop this plan--let there be no doubt today that this Administration is very much up to that challenge.

And quite frankly, we need to be. Just last month, HUD's Worst Case Housing Needs report found that nearly 6 million very low-income households pay more than half their monthly income for rent or live in severely substandard housing.

Our recently released Annual Homeless Assessment Report found that any given night in America, more than 640,000 men, women, and children are without housing--that while we continue to make progress reducing chronic homelessness, family homelessness in rural and urban areas alike has risen by 30 percent over the last two years.

That's why releasing a plan of the scope and ambition of Opening Doors at this moment is so important. Indeed, it commits the Federal government to achieving four fundamental goals.

First, we will end chronic homelessness in five years--we will finish the job.

Second, we will prevent and end homelessness among veterans in five years.

Third, we will prevent and end homelessness for families, youth, and children within a decade.

And fourth, we will set a path to ending all types of homelessness.

President Obama believes, I believe and everyone in this room believes that no one should be without a safe, stable place to call home.

But ensuring no one is won't be easy--even with this plan.

And so for the next few moments, I want to share with you how the Administration intends to achieve those goals--and the role HUD in particular will play in realizing them.

Implementing the Plan

As you know as well as anyone, as historic as this plan is, carrying it out requires more than good intentions--it requires planning, coordination and resources.

I'm proud that the President's budget for Fiscal Year 2011 included an 11 percent increase in targeted homelessness programs across the Federal government, from Health Care for the Homeless and SAMHSA funding to Health Care for Homeless Veterans.

For our part at HUD, we proposed a significant increase in homeless assistance grants--for housing and services included in our "Continuum of Care" ranging from street outreach and safe havens for those with severe mental illness to transitional and permanent homes for the homeless.

Just last week, HUD announced nearly $190 million in new grants to assist hundreds of local homeless assistance programs across the country. The funding will provide support to 550 local projects that will offer critically needed housing and support services to nearly 20,000 homeless individuals and families. This comes on top of the nearly $1.4 billion HUD awarded last December through our Continuum of Care programs to quickly renew funding to more than 6,400 existing local programs.

And I'm thankful that Chairman Olver has proposed to fully fund our FY11 request, which represents a 10 percent increase over last year's funding and a 22 percent increase over what we secured in FY 2009. And we expect the Senate to act soon.

At the same time, we have a remarkable new tool in our arsenal: the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, part of President Obama's Recovery Act, which I'm proud to announce today has helped prevent and end homelessness for nearly a half million people since it became law last year.

But as critical as these services have been during this difficult economic climate, the real power of HPRP--and the Recovery Act as a whole--has been how it has paved the way for us to change the system.

Two-thirds of cities in a U.S. Conference of Mayors survey reported the Recovery Act is fundamentally changing the way they respond to homelessness. Instead of shuffling people through the homeless system, HPRP is keeping people in their homes, while quickly returning others to the stable, permanent housing they need.

Mainstreaming

Of course, everyone here knows that ending homelessness won't happen with targeted resources alone. I'm proud that $1.5 billion was included in the Recovery Act for HPRP--to scale up the kind of approaches you have demonstrated at the local level.

But you and I both know that the real catalyst for change will be found through using mainstream resources--so that when the Federal government provides funding for housing or job training, to prevent domestic violence or to provide health care for our nation's veterans, it is also working to prevent and end homelessness.

That is why the Opening Doors plan identifies more than 52 strategies across 19 member agencies--to bring to bear services funding and income supports.

When I was here last year, I told you that Mark Johnston, our Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Needs within HUD's Office of Community Planning and Development, was chairing a task force that would examine HUD's mainstream housing programs--and to determine how they could be more effective in working together to prevent and end homelessness.

Today, I'm proud to say that two of the key recommendations he made--specifically, for more federal collaborations across agency silos and to provide housing and services to special needs populations--are already being implemented through Opening Doors and the President's FY11 budget proposal.

Indeed, one joint effort between HUD, Health and Human Services, and Education will help us reach 6,000 families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Another collaboration with HHS will enable us to help 4,000 individuals experiencing chronic homelessness move off the streets and out of shelters--by connecting housing vouchers with health and social services provided through Medicaid and SAMHSA.

These initiatives will lay the groundwork for our agencies to take full advantage of the most important policy development of not only this past year, but decades:

Health care reform.

Today, because of President Obama's leadership and tenacity, not only will tens of millions of middle class Americans be protected from bankruptcy--but for the first time people living under 133 percent of the Federal Poverty Level will be eligible to receive health insurance through CHIP or Medicaid.

For the first time, 20 million additional people will be able to get medical attention at Community Health Centers.

For the first time, these families, individuals and households will be able to access the health care system efficiently--ending the costly cycle through emergency rooms that drives up premiums for everyone.

And our voucher partnership with HHS is only the beginning. This collaboration reflects an ongoing commitment that Secretary Sebelius and I have to better coordinate housing, health care and human service programs for homeless persons and other vulnerable populations.

Another critical collaboration this plan scales up is with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

When I met with you last year, I told you that while the HUD-VASH partnership to combine HUD's Housing Choice Voucher rental assistance with VA's case management and clinical services had gotten off to a bumpy start, Secretary Shinseki and I were committed to doing the tough work necessary to honor the sacrifice of our homeless veterans.

And I'm proud to say that this year together, we have made real progress.

When I spoke to you last year, of the 20,000 HUD-VASH vouchers in the 2008 and 2009 allocations, little more than 5,700 were under lease. A year later, having worked together to address obstacles--from hiring case managers with the expertise to help veterans, to ensuring communities use HPRP funding to provide homeless veterans with security deposits--I'm proud to announce today that we have more than doubled that figure.

At this moment, more than 94 percent of the vouchers in the 2008 and 2009 HUD-VASH allocations have been issued to our veterans--helping them to find and afford the housing they need.

And the numbers really don't tell the whole story, particularly when it comes to Secretary Shinseki's laser-like focus on this issue. Unlike those of us in this room, he hasn't spent his career in this field. But he has made a remarkable commitment to understanding housing, and Housing First, quickly and comprehensively, because, simply put, he is a man on a mission when it comes to making sure that homeless veterans get the help they need.

Indeed, so great has been our progress these last several months that Chairman Olver decided our agencies needed more HUD-VASH vouchers, and added 10,000 of them in the FY 2011 House appropriations bill. If those remain in the final bill enacted by Congress, Secretary Shinseki and I will make sure they are put to use immediately in meeting the Plan's goal to end veterans homelessness in 5 years.

Building and Preserving Affordable Housing in the 21st Century

These collaborations affirm that this President understands that for some who are homeless, housing is not enough.

But as this plan shows, he also understands that everyone who is homeless does share one thing in common:

They lack housing they can afford.

As Maria Foscarinis, my first boss out of college, recently wrote, this plan, quote, "emphasizes the importance of housingas the foundation on which all other solutions depend--and on which a healthy life is built."

That's one big reason I told this audience last year that the time had come to put the Federal government back in the business of building and preserving affordable housing.

And we have. At a time when our families need it most, the HUD budget for this year fully funds the renewal of all project-based and tenant-based rental assistance contracts, and for the first time in nearly a decade, also fully funds the Public Housing Operating Subsidy.

And our FY11 budget builds on these successes, even in a very difficult fiscal environment. In addition to the nearly $200 million increase in homeless assistance funding I mentioned, it includes a record number of people to be served by the Housing Choice Voucher program and a billion dollars to capitalize the National Housing Trust Fund.

Funding for the Trust Fund was included in the House-passed version of the Tax Extenders package--now, we need the Senate to act.

But building and preserving affordable housing in the 21st century is one challenge the Federal government can't tackle alone.

Right now, America's Public Housing program faces a backlog of unmet capital needs that could be as high as $30 billion.

The challenge isn't limited to public housing. Older programs that subsidize more than 45,000 units of privately owned affordable housing lack any real strategy that would keep them affordable for the years to come.

Already, our country has lost 150,000 units of affordable housing in the last 15 years--10,000 homes a year, every year for fifteen years.

That is why President Obama and I have proposed a 21st century strategy to provide affordable housing to America's most vulnerable families that we call our Transforming Rental Assistance initiative or "TRA".

I'm proud that we were able to provide an additional $4 billion in public housing capital funding as part of the Recovery Act last year.

But let's be clear: that funding at best meets a fifth of the estimated capital backlog in public housing properties. And given the size of the federal deficit we've inherited, it's clear the Federal government will not be able to finish the job alone.

And failing to finish the job means the billions the government has invested in our public and assisted housing stock over the last seventy years will be lost forever. The programs touched by TRA house over 4 million households, nearly two thirds of which are extremely low income, and two-and-a-half million of whom are elderly or disabled.

For me, it is as simple as this:

Failure to put these units on a sustainable path to financial stability and long-term affordability will prevent us from realizing the goals set forth in Opening Doors. Without it, we will simply be bailing water from a leaking boat.

That's why we are proposing to shift the current federal capital and operating subsidy funding structure to a federal rental subsidy stream that will attract capital from private and other public sources--$7 billion in the first year alone and $25 billion in all.

That's $25 billion sitting on the sidelines right now that could be invested in public housing but can't be because of antiquated rules that were developed nearly a half century ago.

At the same time TRA would infuse our public housing system with the capital it needs to preserve this housing, it would also improve that system in three key ways.

The first is simplicity. Right now, HUD has thirteen different deep rental assistance programs each with its own rules, administered by three operating divisions that contract with more than 20,000 separate entities.

No one would ever intentionally set up a system this complicated.

And we've seen how this proliferation of programs and delivery systems doesn't make housing more accessible--but less, because it means families have to fill out dozens of applications processed by scores of administrators to have a decent chance of receiving assistance.

The time has come to streamline and simplify these programs so that they are governed by a single, integrated, coherent set of rules, delivered through a system that better aligns with the requirements of other financing streams and social service providers.

The second principle is choice. Today, residents of public and assisted housing can't move to a different neighborhood because moving means giving up their subsidy. Just because someone desperately needs housing to get off the streets or out of a shelter shouldn't mean they should forfeit the opportunity later on to reunite with family or move to a better job or further their education.

TRA reflects the Obama Administration's belief that families should be able to choose where they live without fear of losing rental assistance.

The third principle is community. Today, most families live in housing that is financed, developed and managed in a way that can be integrated with the communities around them, while the two-and-a-half million poor families served by HUD's oldest programs don't.

TRA will put an end to the "separate but unequal" housing system in America by encouraging a mix of uses and incomes that link public housing to investments in neighborhood schools, local businesses and other community anchors.

Instead of being a problem for neighborhoods, this housing can be an asset to our communities.

Just as importantly, we estimate it will create more than 300,000 jobs--building and preserving affordable housing in the communities that need it most and providing jobs for the people who need them most. And we know that for many people, the best path out of homelessness is a good-paying job.

With advocates around the country, we have developed legislation, the Preservation, Enhancement and Transformation of Rental Assistance Act, that would bring our public housing system into the 21st century.

Just as Health Care Reform provided the wind at our backs as we bring housing plus supportive services into the mainstream, TRA is the vehicle we need to preserve that housing for generations to come--and we need your help in getting it passed.

Ending Homelessness In Our Time

Those of you who were here last year will remember that I compared the fight to end homelessness to the moon landing forty--now nearly forty-one--years ago.

It seems a foregone conclusion now that we would get to the moon--and faster than the Soviet Union. But at the time, let's not forget that we were behind in the space race and the obstacles seemed enormous.

Today, some have argued, if you'll forgive the metaphor, that we are being starry-eyed by proposing this plan at this moment.

But let's be clear: there's nothing unrealistic about the challenges we tackled or the issues we confronted when we sat down with you to design this plan. We went into this with open eyes. And it is for that reason that this plan forgoes platitudes for timelines, to which all of us will be held accountable.

And let's not forget that we didn't get to the moon overnight. That journey took 8 years, three presidents and 21 space flights. Much like this one, it was filled with false starts and abrupt stops, encouraging successes tempered by the most frustrating and painful of failures.

So, let's be clear: this won't be easy.

Some will continue to suggest we can't afford to do this.

And when they do, we need to remind them that we can't afford not to.

We can't afford to continue the revolving door of emergency rooms, shelters and jails.

Not at this difficult fiscal moment.

Not given all we have proved about how much we save when we prevent homelessness.

The truth is, we've failed to tackle homelessness in the past not because we lacked the resources--but the leadership and will to harness those resources.

That's why we have no choice but to seize this moment and work together to provide everyone--from the most capable to the most vulnerable--the opportunity to reach their full potential.

To end homelessness in our time.

That is what this plan is about.

With Barack Obama, we have a president who believes that that no one should experience homelessness.

With his leadership, with this plan, and with the focus and determination of all of us in this room and in communities across the country to see it through, together we can finally see a day in which no one has to.

A day in which every American can be proud as I am today to consider himself or herself a member of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Thank you.