Remarks by the First Lady at Joining Forces Event for the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness -- New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans, Louisiana
11:28 A.M. CDT
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you, everybody. (Applause.) Thank you so much. You all rest yourselves. You’ve been working hard. You deserve a seat. (Laughter.)
Of course, I want to start by thanking Dylan for his service, for his sacrifice, for his wonderful introduction. I am so proud of him. I’m proud of his family. And I know he’s got a lot of good work to do ahead.
I also want to thank my dear friend, Mayor Landrieu, and Cheryl, my girl -- (laughter) -- for all the great work. I’m so proud of this city. I’m so proud of the work that you’ve done. I’m proud to call you both friends, and I’m honored to be here to be able to lift up the great work that you all are doing.
I also want to recognize our Executive Director at the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Matthew Doherty, who is here -- absolutely. Great work. (Applause.) As well as all of the mayors and local leaders from across the country who have joined us here today and are working hard to achieve this goal in their communities, as well.
And finally, I want to pass along some warm wishes from my friend and partner in Joining Forces, Jill Biden. Jill is feeling a little bit under the weather and couldn’t make it today, but she wanted me to be here to say thank you. Thank you to you all for everything you’re doing to give back to those who have done so much for this country. She’s been a phenomenal partner. She is my girl. And I know that if she could be here she would.
That message of thanks is a message that Jill and I are delivering all month long as we celebrate the fourth anniversary of Joining Forces. And over the past four years, because of folks like all of you, we have come so far on so many issues -- issues like employment, education, health care, particularly mental health.
Businesses have hired or trained hundreds of thousands of veterans and military spouses. Teaching colleges are training teachers to support the unique needs of military-connected students in their classrooms. Associations of doctors and nurses, medical schools and others are training health care providers to better treat issues like post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries.
And over the past year, we have been ramping up our efforts on another issue, an issue that cuts straight to the core of what it means to support those who serve our country, and that is the issue of veteran homelessness.
Now, like many of you, I met a number of veterans who have experienced homelessness in recent years, and I have to tell you that their stories break my heart. There’s a woman from Pennsylvania whose first day of basic training was on 9/11. Three weeks into her first deployment, one of her best friends was killed. A little while later, her base was attacked. So when she came home, she couldn’t shake those images –- the carnage, the explosions, the gunshots -– so she started self-medicating with drugs. Her life spiraled out of control. She ended up living out of her car.
Then there’s the veteran in Minnesota who served during the Vietnam War. The first thing he did when he arrived back to the U.S. was to get down on his hands and knees and kiss the ground. That’s how much he appreciated being back in the country he loved. But then he struggled to transition back to civilian life. He started drinking, got a divorce and was separated from his baby daughter. And for almost 30 years –- three decades –- he was homeless, living on the streets, with folks throwing change at his feet.
Now, these stories are tragic, and believe me, they are infuriating. But unfortunately, they are not unusual and they are not new. As the decades have gone by, as we’ve cycled through administrations of both parties, generations of veterans have fallen through the cracks. And as a country, we’ve seemed to resign ourselves to a reluctant acceptance of this reality. We feel badly about it. We know it is not right. But we’ve almost come to believe that this problem is just too big, too entrenched to ever solve.
Now, I want to be very clear that the vast majority of veterans who return home, they come home in good health and good spirits. They go on to build strong families and find good jobs. And they keep serving this nation in their communities and their workplaces, in their congregations. I’ve seen it. But even one homeless veteran is an outrage. And when we have tens of thousands of veterans who don’t have somewhere to go when it rains –- that is a stain on our nation.
And I think that we can all agree that when our veterans risk their lives for this country and come home kissing the ground, none of them should ever have to sleep on it. (Applause.)
So that’s why, as President, my husband has vowed not to simply manage this problem, but to end it. That’s why he’s made this issue a government-wide priority. He’s cut through red tape for our veterans. He’s directed record funding and resources to get them into housing. And overall, since 2010, we’ve housed nearly 230,000 veterans and their families. (Applause.) We’ve done this through our targeted housing vouchers and the VA homelessness programs.
This is historic progress. And we know that none of it would be possible without leaders like all of you here in New Orleans. And all across the country, people are working on this issue.
Just take the example of what’s happened through the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. This is a group of leaders who came together, as the Mayor said, to -- last June to commit to end homelessness in their communities, and to do it by the end of 2015. We started with 85 state and local leaders from all across the country, and today, that number has grown to 570 mayors, governors, and local officials. (Applause.) So in less than a year, it’s grown more than six times larger. See, that’s the beauty of Joining Forces -- you ask people to do something, they do it.
And we are seeing incredible progress all across this country. Los Angeles housed more than 5,000 veterans last year alone. New York has cut the number of homeless veterans by more than half. Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Houston are close to ending this problem in their communities -- they’re close.
All of this is happening because leaders across this country are getting creative. Mayor Ed Murray of Seattle and Mayor Rusty Bailey of Riverside, California have supplemented federal funds with their own city funds to provide rental subsidies and rapid rehousing services. Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy invested nearly $3 million for homeless veterans, plus even more for veterans’ security deposits.
Well, and then you all know the story that’s going on right here in New Orleans. Mayor Landrieu decided to make this issue a city-wide priority, and as he discussed earlier, he brought together government, nonprofits, landlords, so many others, including many of you here today. And I want to pay particular attention to how you all recruited active duty troops and local veterans -– including some from your terrific VFW who are here with us today –- to reach out to homeless vets and provide that sense of camaraderie and trust.
And with the whole city behind this effort, in January, you knocked that goal right out of the park and became the first major city in the country to end homelessness among our veterans -- the first to get it done. (Applause.)
And I am so proud. I’m so proud because this isn’t just an extraordinary achievement for the city, this is a call to action to our entire country. You all have proven that even a city as big as New Orleans, veterans’ homelessness is not a reality that we have to accept. It is not an impossible problem that’s too big to solve. Just the opposite –- you’ve shown us that when leaders make this problem a priority and bring the right folks to the table, we can find a solution.
And now, we want cities across the country to follow your lead and solve this problem in their communities. And today, I’m thrilled to announce three new initiatives to help make that possible.
Secretary Castro at the Department of Housing and Urban Development is making the next batch of veteran housing vouchers available starting today, which is months earlier than usual. (Applause.) So there are a group here who understands how important that is. So we’re making a total of about $64 million available right now because we want to do everything we can to help cities across the country reach this goal by the end of the year.
Second -- last week, I kicked off the first of our new monthly technical assistance calls for mayors and your staffs. These calls are being led by HUD, the VA, and the Interagency Council on Homelessness. And these calls are designed to give you all a chance to ask questions, to share best practices, and to get connected to the resources that you need. And again, these calls will be every month.
Third and finally -- I couldn’t be more excited about this commitment –- because in the coming weeks, Blackstone, which is one of the world’s largest private equity firms, and its portfolio of companies includes Hilton, Motel 6, La Quinta Inns and Suites -- they are going to be working with local leaders in 25 cities across the country to help create “Welcome Home Kits” for our veterans when they transition into new housing. These kits will include items like furniture, appliances, and other supplies. And just think about how important these things can be for a veteran. Getting the key to an apartment, well, that’s a huge step, but it’s a whole other thing to walk in and have dishes in the cupboard, towels in the bathroom, a bed to sleep on.
So this is wonderful commitment. And I want to just take a moment to tell you how it happened, because this is a perfect example of what Joining Forces is all about.
Two years ago, I went to the Business Roundtable and spoke to dozens of CEOs of our nation’s largest companies about Joining Forces. And Steve Schwarzman was there, and he’s the CEO of The Blackstone Group. Now, Steve walked out of that meeting with one question in his mind: “What can I do to help?” That’s all he was thinking about. So he started with an enormous employment commitment. He decided that Blackstone would hire 50,000 veterans within its family of companies.
But Steve and his team wanted to do more. And when they heard about the homelessness efforts, they realized that Blackstone and these hotel chains were perfectly positioned to contribute these Welcome Home Kits. They have properties in almost all of our major cities. Their hotels have huge inventories of furniture and appliances so it just made sense to provide these kinds of essentials to our vets. So they’re doing what they do best, and they’re doing it on behalf of our extraordinary troops, veterans, and their families.
And today, I want to challenge folks all across the country to follow their lead, as well. So I’m asking the mayors out there -- can you squeeze a few more dollars from your budgets for local homelessness programs? Can you work with your local VA to fill any gaps in your own efforts? Can you ask property owners and landlords to rent to these veterans looking for a place to call home?
To the business owners out there -- does your company have supplies you could donate to our veterans? Could you help pay for their security deposits, their utility bills? And to folks in communities all across the country –- can you volunteer to walk the streets like these veterans did and reach out to homeless folks and help them in your community? Because it’s going to take all of us doing what we each do best to reach -– and to sustain –- this goal.
And that last little point -– sustaining this effort -– is crucial. Because, as the Mayor said, ending veteran homelessness doesn’t mean that we’ll never see another veteran on the streets. That an unfortunate reality. But it means that when someone does experience a housing crisis, we will be prepared to get them back into a home right away –- and for good.
In fact, as the Mayor said, right here in your city, in three months since you’ve announced that you’ve reached the goal, you’ve already housed another 42 homeless veterans. And that is not a sign that we somehow failed those veterans. It’s a sign that the system that you all have set up is working.
And so if we can be there to lift our veterans up and help them back on their feet, we can help prepare them to keep giving back to this country they love. Because time and again, that’s what we’ve seen from our veterans. These are folks who are born to serve, no matter how long ago they took off that uniform. They’re just looking for their next mission.
And that brings me back to those two veterans I told you about at the beginning of my talk, the young women who served in Afghanistan and the veteran from Vietnam who was on the streets for almost 30 years.
Well, flash forward to today. Once she got back on her feet, that young woman, Jennifer Madden, became a nurse, a homeowner, and the mother of two beautiful children. And she spends her free time volunteering for a nonprofit that serves veterans with mental health challenges. And the -- yes, please, for Jennifer. (Applause.)
And that man who served during Vietnam, Doran Hocker. He got connected with a nonprofit that got him into housing and helped get him back on his feet. He reunited with his daughter. And now he’s working for the same nonprofit, helping other veterans get back on their feet, as well. (Applause.)
So I share their stories because I want the nation to remember that these are the kind of folks that we’re helping -- folks who go on to build healthy families. Folks who have become leaders in their communities and continue to serve the country they love.
So that’s why we need to keep pushing on this issue. That’s why we’ve got to keep on digging. We’ve got to pour everything we have into making sure they have a place to call home. Because, as my husband has said, every veteran who’s served America deserves a home in America. (Applause.)
So I’m going to end by thanking you again. Thank you all for being such extraordinary leaders. For setting the bar high. For the work that you are doing and will continue to do. For the passion and dedication and leadership that you have shown to achieve this goal. This is no small task -- that’s why I decided to show up, hang out. (Laughter.) It is now small task, what you have done. And I know that we will continue to work together on this road in the years and years and years ahead.
So congratulations. Congratulations, Mayor. God bless you all. Thank you. (Applause.)
11:48 A.M. CDT