Prepared Remarks of Secretary Shaun Donovan Before the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans
At 2013 NCHV Annual Conference
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Thank you very much, Pat (Ryan), for that kind introduction and for all the strong leadership that you and John Driscoll have provided over the years.
Please allow me to also recognize my Federal colleagues, Secretary Shinseki and Barbara Poppe, for their exemplary work on this issue. They have been great champions for this cause and I’m proud to call them both friends and partners.
And of course, I’d like to express my deep appreciation to all of you - the members and supporters of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. For more than two decades, you have done magnificent work to ensure that our veterans aren’t forgotten once they take off the uniform.
Your efforts have provided generations of servicemen and women with renewed hope for their families and their futures. It has been a pleasure to work with you over the years. And I am honored to be back with you at your Annual Conference.
Honoring Our Heroes
We gather here this morning at a very special period for our nation, just a few days after Memorial Day. It’s a time to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of American ideals like equality and freedom.
And in recent days, Americans from all walks of life have expressed their respect and gratitude in a variety of ways. We’ve participated in parades. We’ve observed moments of silence. And we’ve gathered with family to honor our fallen heroes.
But as Americans, we must do more to honor all those who have answered the call of duty.
In fact, we have our own duty to look in the mirror and ask ourselves a few simple questions.
While we honor all those we lost too soon, are we doing enough to help the heroes who are still with us? Are we helping them make a healthy transition from service to society? Are we giving them as much as they have given us?
The answer is clear to all of us in this room: no. Having just one homeless veteran is unacceptable. Having close to 60,000 homeless veterans, as we currently do, is, as I’ve said many times before, a national disgrace. We can’t let these forgotten heroes slip through the cracks. We’ve got to do everything we can to lift them up and help them rejoin the very communities they gave so much to protect. In short, all Americans have our own duty to help veterans in need.
Today, I want to talk about:
• the work the Obama administration has done with partners like you to fulfill this duty;
• the progress we’ve made in recent years; and,
• what we must do to accelerate this progress to meet the goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015.
First Term Progress
As all of you know, from our earliest days in office, the Obama administration has been firmly focused on this issue, a commitment that starts from the very top.
Shortly after he took office in 2009, the President said we’ve got to provide “new help for homeless veterans, because those heroes have a home, it's the country they served: the United States of America. And until we reach a day when not a single veteran sleeps on our Nation's streets, our work remains unfinished.”
Clearly, the President is committed to solving this crisis. He recognizes the urgency of this moment - with more than one million service members making the transition to civilian life over the next few years.
Shortly after taking office, he took bold action by putting forth an aggressive agenda designed to confront this challenge. As part of the Recovery Act, he created the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program—or HPRP.
This effort alone helped prevent and end homelessness for roughly 1.3 million people during one of the most difficult economic chapters in American history. To put that in perspective, that is roughly twice the population of Washington, DC.
So these Recovery Act dollars made a difference for a lot of people, including veterans.
The program provided tens of thousands of servicemen and women with assistance needed to obtain housing – such as security deposits and relocation services. But, all of us in the Administration recognized that this was just a start – and that to fulfill our duty to veterans, we needed a big initiative that solves big problems.
So Opening Doors was launched in 2010. By now, all of you are familiar with the historic nature of this initiative. You know that unlike previous federal efforts, which tried to simply reduce or help the homeless, Opening Doors was the first federal plan designed to end homelessness.
You also know it is the product of 19 federal agencies, working in concert with our local partners, including you, to push for progress. And I’m proud to say that our efforts are working.
As Secretary Shinseki indicated, in recent years, veteran homelessness has dropped 17 percent.
This is the result of a number of important efforts taking place, including that the federal government is working together to confront this issue like never before. It is no secret that, historically, federal agencies have had difficulty getting on the same page.
And it hasn’t always been easy for dedicated, community-based stakeholders like you to partner with government either - even when we are all trying to achieve the same goal. That’s why the Obama administration has placed a special focus on collaboration.
We’ve worked to break down the silos between agencies by shifting the focus from bureaucratic procedures to outcomes that improve communities. Take HUD and the VA, for example. Our two agencies are working together like never before. In fact, last year, our two teams were honored with the “Sammie Award” from the Partnership for Public Service in recognition of the great work we’ve done together.
We have formed a two-year leadership team for the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, which sets the long-term strategy for the Opening Doors effort. We’re also exchanging ideas. We’re doing joint interventions. We’re holding ourselves accountable for outcomes.
In short, we’re complementing each other’s efforts rather than complicating them. It hasn’t always been easy. You all know that collaboration, especially where large bureaucracies are involved, is not for the faint of heart.
We all recall the early days when our combined efforts weren’t where I, Secretary Shinsecki, or all of you wanted them to be. But rather than retreat from the partnership, our teams doubled down on the hard work needed to accelerate progress.
And key to this work was investing taxpayer dollars in the most targeted and effective way - toward the interventions that get the most ‘bang for the buck,’ particularly in these constrained fiscal times. That’s why I’m so proud that we’ve increasingly incorporated evidence-based practices into our work.
Now, it’s no secret that I’m known around town as a “data guy.” It’s a distinction I’m proud to share with Secretary Shinseki who has a saying: “if I can’t see it, I can’t fix it.” And he’s right.
To me, data is more than just a bunch of numbers - it’s a roadmap to greater understanding and better decision-making. That’s why I started HUDStat in 2010, and invited VA to join us in regular sessions where we are able to take a data-driven management approach to solving veteran homelessness.
Through HUDStat, we are learning, both at the national and local levels where the greatest needs are; where we can make a difference; what is working; and what is not working. Barbara (Poppe), former Deputy Secretary Gould and others from the VA are also intimately involved in HUDStat – and it’s paying great dividends. Our stats are translating to strides in a variety of areas.
Case in point is the recent success of HUD-VASH. As all of you know, it’s an innovative partnership between our two agencies that combines HUD’s Housing Choice Voucher rental assistance with VA’s case management and clinical services.
When this Administration took office, the HUD-VASH program was not fulfilling its potential in housing homeless veterans. Resources weren’t getting to the neediest veterans fast enough.
It was taking too long to house a veteran. In fact, by the time President Obama was sworn in, less than 1,200 veterans had been housed.
That all changed when HUD and the VA were able to analyze the data and determine how long each step in the process was taking - from identifying a Veteran on the street to getting him or her housed.
This led to problem solving, and identifying actions that needed to be taken by both policymakers and practitioners in order to speed up the process. It also allowed us to better target this important resource to those most in need of the robust services and housing assistance available through this program.
As a result, now, when we identify successes with this data, we build on them. When we see challenges, we solve them. In all, these new evidence-based practices are guiding a much more targeted and effective approach. As a result, more than 42,000 veterans are now in housing - and we are committed to keeping the momentum going.
Key to this goal is the Housing First effort - a new approach in HUD-VASH to combating chronic homelessness. As we all know, homeless veterans often face a variety of other personal challenges - including substance abuse, medical conditions and mental health issues.
And past models demanded that veterans address these issues before they could be offered housing. But all of us here know that the only way to achieve new progress is to challenge old assumptions like these. The Housing First model does this.
This strategy demands that our nation’s homeless system respond quickly to the most urgent need of any homeless individual or family - access to permanent housing. Then, around that housing, we build the supports those households need to respond to other challenges in their lives - ranging from healthcare to jobs.
With the assurance of where you’re going to sleep each night, it’s a lot easier to take additional steps to lead healthier and more productive lives. In fact, HUD did a national study and found that 84 percent of all chronically homeless people were still housed a year after they got placed.
So Housing First is providing people and families with newfound stability. It’s doing more than that: it’s also saving money. When you take into account the shelters, the emergency rooms and jails - it costs tens of thousands of dollars a year for a homeless person to be on the streets.
So doing nothing costs a lot of money. Doing something, like Housing First, literally saves money. And most importantly, it provides people and families with newfound stability.
It’s proven to be another useful tool in fighting veterans homelessness. And I thank Secretary Shinseki, and his team at VA, for joining us in this effort. I also thank the VA and the Labor Department for partnering with us on an innovative effort to prevent homelessness for those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Veterans Homelessness Prevention Demonstration Program uses $15 million in federal funds to help veterans living near five military installations. For veterans in transition, HUD offers help in areas ranging from security deposits to utility payments.
The VA offers healthcare and benefits. And the Labor Department focuses on job and training opportunities. It’s truly a multi-faceted approach that’s generating results. In the first year of this demonstration, nearly than 1,400 veterans, spouses and children received services that prevented them from becoming homeless.
Because of these and other initiatives, our nation has made significant headway towards our 2015 goal. In fact, after the most recent PIT count –communities across the country have reported making significant strides. And although the national data is preliminary, all indications are that we’ve had another year of progress.
Veterans homelessness is dropping. Hope is rising. Momentum is building. And this is something we should applaud. Whenever a hero finds a home, we should all celebrate.
But we can’t be content. We cannot rest. We can’t back down.
Instead, we’ve got to double-down on our efforts—and accelerate our progress—if we are going to meet the national 2015 goal.
The Next Chapter: Accelerating Our Progress
With that date fast approaching, we’ve got to act with urgency in everything we do. We can’t waste time. We can’t waste opportunities. We’ve got to work for each other—and with each other—more than ever.
This won’t be easy because we are operating in a unique budget climate. So all of us in the Obama administration are working to do more with less by strategically allocating our resources in areas where we can make the most difference for people.
One of these areas is HUD-VASH. Today, I’m proud to announce the first round of 2013 funding. $60 million has been awarded today, to areas around the country, funding approximately 9,000 new vouchers.
This increase, at a time when government is tightening its belt, speaks volumes about the importance of the program and its cost effectiveness. With these additional resources, we’ll be able to help even more veterans find housing and maximize the impact for our dollars.
We’re also directing resources to Rapid Re-Housing - a pillar of the HPRP program.
Even though HPRP has ended, we want to build on the success of the Rapid Re-Housing portion because it proved to be such an effective tool. What we have found is that about 90% of those who participated remained housed a year later.
That’s a tremendous outcome, and more people should experience it. So I’m glad that the VA modeled its own Supportive Services for Veteran Housing after it. And it’s also why, in the Fiscal Year 2014 budget, we included a $60 million Rapid Re-Housing set-aside that would allow us to target high-need communities.
We did so because the program works, and with additional resources, we can make it work for more people. The same can be said for our Continuum of Care Homeless Grants. As I said earlier, the evidence is clear: every dollar we spend on programs that help find a stable home for our most vulnerable not only saves money but quite literally saves lives.
According to HUD’s latest estimate based on point-in-time counts, the number of people experiencing long-term or chronic homelessness declined nearly 7 percent in the latest year.
So in the FY 14 budget, we requested a 25% increase—or $480 million—for these grants.
With these proposed funds, we want to increase our support of communities that are doing such great work.
We are also urging these communities to examine their own operations, and determine what they can do better, whether it’s reallocating funds from underperforming or less compelling projects to create new initiatives focused on veterans and the chronically homeless; or making existing beds available as soon as they turnover to help those most in need.
I don’t want to minimize the difficulty of these local conversations. In many cases, we are talking about passionate, dedicated providers having to shift the populations they prioritize and the kind of services they provide.
I know it is not easy to change a business model that’s been in place for decades. But it’s often required, especially if we are going to meet the ambitious goals we all seek. That’s why we at HUD and VA are here to help you through this challenging process. And we look forward to working with you on addressing your challenges.
We also want to work with you to raise awareness about the opportunities out there. Take the issue of health care for veterans. Right now, states across the country are implementing health care reform, leading to increased access to coverage.
In those states that choose—or already have chosen— to expand their Medicaid programs, no veteran experiencing chronic homelessness will be uninsured. This is important, especially for those who aren’t eligible for VA services.
Having expanded access to better care will lead to a better quality of life, and can help put a person back to health and stability. So I ask all of you to use your voices to raise awareness and ensure that every eligible veteran you work with gets enrolled.
I also ask you to encourage others to join us in thinking outside the box for new, innovative and cost-effective solutions. One vehicle to do this is boot camps designed to house homeless veterans, where teams of government officials, non-profits and other stakeholders—from across the country—come together for two days.
Participants learn from each other by exchanging perspectives, stories and best practices. And when they return home, they are setting ambitious 100-day goals for their own communities, applying the lessons they learned into their local efforts.
As a result, a number of communities like Phoenix and Salt Lake City are now striving to become the first to end veteran homelessness. This kind of progress is happening across the country, giving every indication that these boot camps are working.
They are spreading good ideas and innovative solutions to areas throughout the country. And we’ve got to do more of it if we are going to achieve the progress we all want.
Conclusion: Fulfilling Our Duty
When I began my remarks, I talked about the duty that all Americans have. It’s a duty to treat all those who served with dignity and respect. It’s a duty to extend a hand to them so they can lift themselves up. It’s a duty to open new doors of opportunity so that they can find a home in the county they have given everything to.
Now, it is up to all of us to rally our fellow citizens and communities to fulfill this duty and ensure that every veteran has a roof to sleep under. Make no mistake: To do this by the end of 2015 is going to be a bumpy road.
We are going to have to be more passionate and productive. We have to be more focused to ensure help reaches those who need it most. And we’re going to have to be creative like never before.
I know that we can do this. Why? Because we are committed. I know you have been committed to this cause for decades.
The President and all of us in the Administration stand with you. And today, let’s pledge to each other to make this conference a defining moment in our movement – one where we took our work to new heights.
It is up to us to make the 2015 goal a reality. So let’s not let each other down. And let’s not let our homeless veterans down.