July 17, 2012
Home is where we build our lives. It is where we grow up, raise our children and plan for the future. In the face of danger and uncertainty, home can give us shelter and stability.
Yet today too many Americans don’t have access to the protection and opportunity that home provides. On a single night in January 2011, close to 630,000 people were homeless including more than 100,000 individuals who were chronically homeless.
Homelessness has pushed too many of our neighbors into the margins, keeping them from achieving their full potential and depriving society of their best contributions. Financial crises, substance abuse, mental illness, and domestic violence often lead people into episodes of homelessness. Then homelessness makes them worse.
And it is not just those experiencing homelessness who bear its heavy costs. Homelessness leads to increased use of emergency rooms, police and jails, stretching local, state, and federal budgets.
We pay a steep price for homelessness as a nation. But we also have an opportunity to end homelessness as a nation. To save the vast public resources we could invest in our communities and our future. To provide thousands of Americans currently focused only on surviving, the support they need to participate and thrive. And to give countless children and youth, the stable environment they need to succeed in school and in life.
We know we can do this.
Over the last 10 years we have learned a lot. We know that combining permanent housing with a coordinated pipeline of supportive services is the best way to help people improve their lives and avoid future homelessness. Those of you on the frontlines have put this approach to work helping move thousands of people off the streets and out of shelters.
What this says is that there are solutions.
And yet, for too long, when those of you in the community have turned to the federal government for support, what you got back were narrow messages from different agencies about different programs, each with their own restrictions and definitions.
There are funds targeted specifically for homeless populations like HUD’s Homeless Assistance Grants and my own department’s PATH program. There are mainstream programs like Head Start, Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Community agencies have found innovative ways to braid these funding streams to meet the needs of homeless people in their communities. Yet with different rules and different reporting requirements for different programs, that has not always been easy.
But that is changing. Over the last three year, this administration has taken steps to streamline those programs so that they can reach more people more effectively.
As many of you know, two years ago 19 federal agencies and 5 cabinet secretaries came together to launch ‘Opening Doors,’ the first-ever federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness.
What this plan says is that we all have a stake in fighting homelessness. If we want to confront a national crisis, it takes a national commitment. And so we’ve put the full, coordinated weight of the federal government behind four key goals.
- Finishing the job of ending chronic homelessness by 2015.
- Preventing and ending homelessness among Veterans by 2015.
- Preventing and ending homelessness for families, youth, and children by 2020; and
- Setting a path to end all types of homelessness.
As we set out toward these ambitious goals in 2010, we knew it would not be easy, especially amidst the ongoing economic downturn. So we worked to make the most of a number of investments under the Recovery Act.
The first was the Emergency Contingency Fund under TANF. These are flexible resources that many states used to help families in the form of short term rental assistance or subsidized employment.
Another critical piece was $1.5 billion in HUD’s Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, which has helped over 1.2 million people nationwide stay in their homes or exit shelter through rapid re-housing.
Programs like these helped protect millions of Americans most vulnerable to the worst affects of the recession.
But a big part of our strategic plan is to make permanent changes in the way we address homelessness. With everyone now working from the same playbook, we could begin taking on some of the most frustrating challenges in our fight against homelessness.
One of our big goals has been to make our programs work together better.
For example, look at the two programs I just mentioned: TANF and HUD’s HPRP.
Both of these investments reached a lot of people in need. But we saw an opportunity to reach even more people more effectively. So our department sat down with HUD and developed joint guidance highlighting ways that states and communities could use these funds together.
Maine’s Family Housing Stabilization Program was a great example. Following our guidance, each of the state’s 13 community-based agencies that received federal housing funds under the stimulus were given an additional allotment from the Emergency Contingency Fund.
As a result, those agencies could offer more than just the basic rental support and casework allowed by the HUD funds. They also provided mortgage assistance, home repairs, subsidized employment and other services under TANF. This helped TANF move more people out of poverty. It helped HUD keep more people in stable housing. And it helped the local agencies tailor services to better meet their communities’ needs.
Our goal now is to build on this kind of success. We’re developing an Information Memorandum for state TANF Directors to highlight the best ways to support families experiencing or at risk of homelessness. And we’re working with advocates from groups like the National Alliance to End Homelessness to make sure we incorporate the most innovative approaches from the frontlines.
Now, we also know that the same set factors that make a family vulnerable to homelessness – like substance abuse, domestic abuse, and trauma -- can also bring them into the child welfare system. And yet, until now, the services we’ve used to address family homelessness and those in the child welfare system have largely been separate. So this year our department has launched the first-ever federal investment in supportive housing specifically to reduce homeless families’ involvement in the child welfare system.
Our goal, through a five-year grant program, is to develop initiatives where child welfare dollars may be paired with housing assistance. We believe that permanent housing with supportive services can improve the lives of children and their families. And by breaking the devastating cycle of homelessness and out-of-home placements, we can lower the significant costs it has placed on the child welfare system.
A second area that has been a longtime source of frustration is the lack of progress around youth homelessness.
For young people, simply providing shelter, housing and supportive services is not enough. Youth aren’t just small adults. They have unique needs and distinct risk. We need to understand how to engage them, help them return home if it’s safe, and, if not, provide alternative opportunities to grow and learn.
There are terrific youth shelters that provide a safe alternative to adult shelters and the dangers of victimization and life on the streets. And there are transitional living programs for some youth that provide life skills, and services to young people who cannot be reunited with their families.
This spring I visited a facility run by Lighthouse Youth Services in Cincinnati that combines both. On the ground floor they run a shelter for homeless youth living on the street. It’s a safe place to do the things you would do at home: do laundry, eat and hang out for awhile. There are counselors available if the youth want to reach out.
On the second floor is transitional housing. It’s a residential setting but many of these youth initially came as drop-ins to the first floor, then decided over time to stay. Many are in school or working with access to some kind of health care, counseling and support.
What struck me when I met young people in both settings, was just how much hope was in their voices. They looked you in the eye and talked about their future – about finishing high school and going to college, about their jobs and careers.
It was clear, just how transformative programs like this can be.
And it is from examples like these that we know what’s possible. Yet, we also know that there are a lot more youth out there in need. So over the last few months, we’ve asked how we can increase access to the kind of support provided by programs like Lighthouse.
Commissioner Bryan Samuels who leads our Department’s Administration for Children, Youth, and Families has worked with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness to develop a framework for ending youth homelessness, as well as a preliminary intervention model to help guide the way.
Going forward we have a number of priorities.
First, we know we need better, more comprehensive data as soon as possible. So HUD and HHS are working together to better integrate our own data. And we’re working together along with the Department of Education to add a youth-specific component to the annual point-in-time count.
Second we need better evidence about what works. We want local communities to do what they do best and act as hubs of innovation. We need you to engage with local health centers and schools. We need you to look for opportunities to conduct evaluations and research that improves our understanding of what works to reduce risk, increase safety, and achieves long-term positive outcomes for homeless youth.
And third, we’re focusing on high-need youth -- including pregnant and parenting teens, LGBTQ youth and those transitioning out of juvenile justice and child welfare systems. In one New York City youth shelter, 30 percent of youth had been arrested or incarcerated. Young people in all of these groups have a higher risk of trauma, higher levels of substance abuse, and they are more likely to experience chronic homelessness.
Our goal for the youth framework is to help providers better identify these youths’ specific needs, then offer them the most appropriate interventions.
To be sure, these are not the only areas where we have focused over the last three years. Few social policy challenges are as complex as homelessness. And this Administration has made it a priority to tackle it from every angle.
We continue to battle chronic homelessness by investing in and strengthening permanent supportive housing. And of course, the Affordable Care Act is one of the most significant laws our fight against homelessness has ever seen. Since it became law we have begun expanding coverage to millions of previously uninsured. We expanded community health centers, adding space and staff to serve millions more Americans. And we’re training thousands of new health care providers with the skills they need to reach vulnerable populations.
By improving care to all veterans, with special attention to returning veterans, the VA has seen a 12 percent reduction in veteran homelessness between 2010 and 2011. And I am proud to share the news that earlier today Secretary Shinseki announced the award of nearly $100 million in new grants for community agencies across the country to help 42,000 homeless and at-risk veterans and their families.
Efforts like this are a testament to the unprecedented collaboration taking place across the government. Together with Shaun Donovan, Arne Duncan, Hilda Solis and Eric Shinseki, we have a terrific team that has ensured homelessness remains a top priority at the highest levels of this Administration.
But we know that it’s those of you on the frontlines who meet people’s most critical needs every day. In order to share the lessons you’ve learned and take your best practices to scale, you need a full partner in the federal government. And we’re committed to being that partner.
Now, we need you to keep driving the conversation, because the greatest innovations rarely come out of Washington. Your evidence and expertise have already transformed how we help and support people experiencing homelessness.
Today, we can envision the day when we have ended all types of homelessness. And I look forward to working together with all of you to make that promise a reality.