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Prepared Remarks of OMB Director Shaun Donovan, 2016 National Conference on Ending Homelessness

Today, Director Donovan reflected on the Administration’s progress in ending homelessness and highlighted the steps we must all take to build on this progress.

Editor’s Note: Today, OMB Director Shaun Donovan delivered remarks at the National Alliance to End Homelessness' 2016 National Conference on Ending Homelessness. Reflecting on the time since he spoke to the same crowd seven years ago, Director Donovan spoke about the progress we have made in implementing the President's vision to prevent and end homelessness, and the steps we must take to ensure that the next Administration sustains and builds on our progress. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery.

Thank you, Nan, for that kind introduction.

I want to thank the National Alliance for inviting me. Everyone at the Alliance has shown their commitment and dedication to ending homelessness, especially Nan in her many years of leadership.  And thank you Sylvia for your leadership and your friendship.

Being here today is powerful for me in a number of ways. Six months after President Obama took office, I came here as his first HUD Secretary, to outline the President’s vision for preventing and ending homelessness.  

I return today as OMB Director, just six months before the President will leave office, to reflect on what we’ve accomplished together and highlight the steps we must all take to ensure that the next Administration sustains and builds on our progress.

But being here today is also powerful because homelessness is the issue that sparked my career in public service.

In 1983, I was a college freshman living on Harvard Yard. Just upstairs in my dorm was a smart and talented student from West Virginia named Sylvia Matthews. You might know her as Sylvia Burwell. Small world, huh?

That winter, I started volunteering at the Harvard Square homeless shelter. If you had told me back then that homelessness was a problem that could be solved, I would have told you it was a fantasy.

Homelessness was seen as an intractable problem: approached with a great deal of compassion but little analytical rigor. Many even said we could never end homelessness because some people just “wanted” to be homeless.

That young college student would never have imagined standing here today, highlighting the progress we have made not just in showing that we can house anyone – but our progress towards housing everyone.

Federal Strategy for Ending Homelessness

That progress started with a commitment.

When I spoke at this event in 2009, I stated on behalf of the President, “we will develop and implement a federal strategy to prevent and end homelessness.” And we did exactly that, for the first time in the nation’s history.

Thanks to the President’s leadership and commitment, that plan has been the centerpiece of our progress ever since.

But a plan is only as good as the data that informs it and the people that drive it forward.

From the start, this Administration has focused on unlocking data and evidence to identify and implement effective strategies, so we can do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.

As HUD Secretary, I saw the power of data up close. Until we could help New Orleans figure out how many homeless veterans were living on its streets, they couldn’t go out and find them and, ultimately, house them all. 

Data showed us which cities were getting it right -- and helped us understand why – so we could adapt a best practice from Ohio for use in California.  

We now know far more about the causes, demographics and dynamics of homelessness than when I stood before you in 2009, and this new data and evidence continues to guide our efforts. 

And most importantly, we now know that we can change lives, that we can end homelessness because it has been done.

While the people involved in leading this effort and the roles many of us play have changed and evolved since this strategy was first announced, the interagency council and dedicated career staff have been a north star -- a constant driving force in implementing this strategy.

It’s been a team effort over the last several years—a government-wide effort—and there are many folks in many different Federal agencies who have worked tirelessly to get where we are today, at ICH, HUD, VA, Education, HHS and many more. 

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to recognize some key people for their contributions.

Of course, none of our achievements would have been possible without strong leadership at the Council, first from Barbara Poppe, then Laura Zeilinger, and now under the outstanding leadership of Matthew Doherty. 

I also want to acknowledge the work of Jennifer Ho and Sarah Hunter for their many contributions to ending homelessness, particularly for their continued efforts on youth homelessness and to get agencies to work together to advance the coordination of health and homeless services. 

And, we couldn’t have achieved the great results we have without the efforts of dedicated public servants, like Ann Oliva, Norm Suchar, and Mark Johnston from HUD, Lisa Pape and Anthony Love at VA, and the whole SNAPS and HUD-VASH teams. 

Thanks to the work of these folks, and many more, we’ve made great strides.

Homelessness among America’s veterans has fallen by more than a third.  Places like New Orleans and Rockford, IL have ended homelessness among veterans altogether.

We’ve taken important steps on other forms of homelessness as well. Since the launch of the strategy, we’ve reduced chronic homelessness by 22 percent and family homelessness by 19 percent.

Reforming Our Nation’s Health Care System

Some of our most remarkable progress has been in the area of health care.

When I spoke here in 2009, I talked about the incredible opportunities that lay at the intersection of health reform and housing.

The Affordable Care Act has delivered on that promise. By expanding access to coverage, it helps protect people from losing their homes because of unexpected, unaffordable medical costs and it helps people experiencing homelessness get the treatment and care they need.  

But our work is not done. It’s time for the 19 states that so far have refused to expand Medicaid to stop turning their backs on their most vulnerable people. They should embrace this unique opportunity to improve the health and financial security of their residents, including those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

White House Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan speaks at the 2016 National Conference on Ending Homelessness on July 27, 2016.

Federal Government as a Partner

As we look forward, there are other steps we can take to build on our progress.

As I said, we’ve made remarkable strides on ending veteran homelessness and taken important steps to address chronic homelessness. But, our progress has often been limited by a Republican-led Congress that refuses to invest in critical priorities, even when the need is clear and the solution is backed by evidence.

Take our enduring challenge of ending family homelessness. We know that a key reason for family homelessness is the lack of access to housing families can afford.

When I first joined HUD, our nation faced an affordable rental housing crisis. Families whose incomes plummeted as a result of the recession were increasingly falling into homelessness – through foreclosures, evictions, layoffs, or health care costs.

And, when I spoke here, I was clear that the Federal government would get back into the business of affordable rental housing, because the Federal government is a critical partner in preserving and creating it.

This Administration took immediate action. President Obama’s Recovery Act, along with HUD’s Fiscal Year 2010 budget, invested in the nation’s 1.2 million units of public housing, supported Project Based Section 8 developments, and stabilized buildings financed by the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.

By ramping up the Federal commitment to the preservation and production of affordable housing, we were able to create or preserve affordable homes for millions of people.

But we need to do more. As I mentioned, family homelessness has fallen by 19 percent since we launched the President’s plan, but more than 64,000 families nationwide were still homeless on a single winter night. At least 128,000 children were without a safe home.

That’s why the President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2017 calls for a historic investment of $11 billion over the next ten years to end homelessness for all of America’s families by 2020. 

The President’s investment would enable HUD to quickly move families out of emergency shelters and into their own stable housing where they can resolve health issues, find or maintain jobs, and keep their kids in school.

That could mean rapid rehousing that provides short-term rental assistance with some stabilization or job services, or it might mean a Housing Choice Voucher that provides longer-term stability. The President’s Budget calls for both approaches to provide the right, proven, cost-effective strategy for each family.

In addition to the $11 billion, the Budget proposes a new $2 billion initiative at HHS known as Emergency Aid and Service Connection Grants.

We know from the moving work of Kathy Edin and Luke Schaefer that today in America, 1.5 million households, including about 3 million children, are trying to survive on just $2 per day in cash income.

Often families who are living on the edge fall into this deep poverty when something goes wrong – the car that gets them to a job breaks down, or a parent gets sick and misses work – and sometimes families who fall through these cracks get stuck there for long periods. 

This initiative will provide them with the emergency help they need to avoid or reverse a downward spiral, and connect to longer term supports, such as income assistance, job training, child care, and mental health and substance abuse treatment, so that parents can get back on their feet, families can be stabilized, and children can thrive.

And to bring our shared goal of ending chronic homelessness across the finish line, our Budget repeats its request for 25,500 beds of permanent supportive housing.

These investments make perfect sense, in both human and fiscal terms. But, if you were to ask me, “will Congress pass these investments this year?” I’d have to tell you that the odds are stacked against us.

So far this year, Congress has failed to fund any of these proposals. Instead, they’ve advanced partisan spending bills that underfund our Nation’s needs in areas from housing to education to R&D to critical health crises – and they haven’t managed to get a single spending bill to the President’s desk.

And, of course, it’s an election year, which only makes our path even steeper.

Still, these proposals do provide a path forward, however steep, towards our ultimate goal – ending all homelessness, once and for all.

Shared Sense of Commitment and Collaboration

So let me return to where I ended my speech seven years ago: It comes down to our collective commitment.

It’s about our belief in ourselves and what we can accomplish in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

Those of you who were here in 2009 may remember that I compared the fight to end homelessness to the moon landing forty--now forty-seven--years ago.

Together, we launched our own moonshot on homelessness. And look how far we’ve come – nearly 30 cities and states have ended veteran homelessness. That college freshman volunteering in a homeless shelter more than 30 years ago never would have believed it. Now many of you may say we still have a long way to go. And you’d be right. But let's not forget that we didn't get to the moon overnight. That journey took three presidents and 21 space flights.

Back then, the New York Times described the moon landing as “the realization of centuries of dreams, the fulfillment of a decade of striving, a triumph of modern technology and personal courage, the most dramatic demonstration of what we can do if we apply our minds and resources with single-minded determination.”

And that’s why everyone in this room is so vital to our effort: your dreams, your striving, your courage, your determination.

As our Administration enters its final months, each and every one of you will play a crucial role in making sure this work continues. I am counting on you to use every chance you get to call on the next Administration to sustain and build on our progress, and every tool you have to ensure they succeed. Forget me, President Obama is counting on you. No pressure.

But after more than seven years, I know something about all of you in this room. I’ve walked the streets of DC with you on frigid nights to count and console our fellow human beings. I’ve traveled to your communities to see firsthand the compassion and creativity you bring to this work. I know you can do it. I know that you can end homelessness in America, for every veteran, for every family, for everyone.

Ending homelessness in America is within our reach. Together, we can get there.

Thank you.


Shannon Buckingham is the Associate Director for Communications and Strategic Planning at the White House Office of Management and Budget.