Remarks by The First Lady on Ending Veteran Homelessness at U.S Conference of Mayors Winter Meeting
11:17 A.M. EST
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you so much. You all rest yourselves. You work hard. You deserve to sit a little bit. I’m glad it’s warm in here.
Well, good morning, everyone. It is beyond a pleasure to be here with you for your 2016 Winter Meeting. I want to start by thanking Mayor Rawlings-Blake for that very kind introduction, but more importantly for her outstanding service to her city and to this nation. Absolutely. (Applause.)
I also want to recognize your other terrific leaders -- Mayor Landrieu and Mayor Cornett, who I saw earlier. You guys, thank you so much. (Applause.)
I see so many familiar faces -- so many mayors and local leaders who we’ve worked with over the years. Because when it comes to our toughest problems and our most important policies, you all are often the first people we call. You are the ones dealing with these issues on the ground, every day. And so often, you’re already leading the way.
As Mayor Rawlings-Blake just said, when we launched Let’s Move! to address childhood obesity, you all were out there building bike paths and playgrounds and serving healthier food in your schools. When we started Reach Higher, our initiative to inspire young people to pursue higher education, you all stepped up to host College Signing Days for high school seniors.
And when it comes to Joining Forces, our initiative to honor our servicemembers, our veterans, and their families, so many of you have been hitting it out of the park for years -- helping vets and their spouses find employment, supporting our military kids, and working to ensure that every veteran in this country has a place to call home.
And that’s exactly what I want to talk with you about today. I want to talk about the work that you’ve already done and the work that lies ahead for our veterans, particularly on the issue of homelessness.
Now, as you all know, the overwhelming majority of our veterans come home and they pick up right where they left off -- as leaders in their workplaces, as pillars of their families and communities.
But others aren’t so lucky. For generations, too many of our veterans -- from Korea and Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan -- have fallen on hard times and wound up with nowhere to call home. I know we can all agree that this is an absolute outrage. It is a horrifying stain on our nation, particularly when you think about all that these men and women have done for our country.
We all know the stresses that military life can put on them and their families -- how they often have to move from base to base every few years; how they’ve dealt with multiple deployments, leaving their spouses to juggle things at home for months on end. And then long after they return home and hang up their uniform, some of them wind up dealing with the visible -- and invisible -- wounds of war. And despite everything these folks have done for this country, too often the powerful truth of their service and sacrifice gets lost in all the noise.
These days we hear a lot of folks arguing and debating about the threats our country faces -- and they’re real. But we must remember that after all that talk, it’s our men and women in uniform who are the ones that head to the frontlines and actually walk the walk. (Applause.) They’re the ones out there doing the dangerous and heroic work of keeping us safe.
So, again, I think we can all agree that if a single veteran returns home and doesn’t have a roof over his or her head, that is an affront to everything this country stands for -- because no one who’s worn this country’s uniform should ever have to spend a single night -- even a single hour -- out on the streets. (Applause.)
And that’s why, since launching the Mayors Challenge to End Veterans’ Homelessness nearly two years ago, more than 800 leaders have signed up. Through this challenge, we set a clear and incredibly ambitious goal: to end veteran homelessness in your communities by the end of 2015. And once that goal was set, you got to work. And let me just say, I am blown away by what you all have achieved, truly.
In Syracuse, Mayor Miner pulled together folks from all across the city -- from government, social service agencies, non-profits -- and she built a team that identifies and houses homeless vets in just 45 days.
In Las Vegas, Mayor Goodman rallied governors and mayors from across the region to participate in the challenge. And her team created a list of every homeless veteran in her city, and they enlisted partners to canvass neighborhoods every week to find and house the folks on that list.
In just two years, communities of all sizes in all parts of this country have met the goal you set and they’ve ended veterans’ homelessness. Small cities like Biloxi, Mississippi and Rockford, Illinois -- they’ve done it. Big cities like Philadelphia, New Orleans, Houston -- they’ve done it. And the entire state of Virginia, they did it too. That’s good stuff. (Applause.)
In just the last year alone, you all have helped more than 157,000 veterans and their families secure or remain in permanent housing. So you have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that every single community -- large and small, rural and urban -- every kind of community in America can end veterans homelessness. Now, did we meet the goal to solve this problem by the end of last year? No, we didn’t. But do we regret having set that goal? Absolutely not.
I am proud to have stood with you to set the goal. And I am proud that you all took the risk and made yourselves publicly accountable for solving this problem. And I stand here today feeling even more inspired and even more confident in our ability to solve this problem once and for all. See, because when you set ambitious goals, you create a sense of urgency, and then you start taking ambitious action. And even if you fall short at first, you’ve started to create the momentum you need to ultimately succeed.
That’s what’s happened in San Antonio, where USAA just pledged $2.1 million to fund local non-profits that are working to end veteran homelessness -- because often, when city leaders steps up, businesses and non-profits will be right there beside them. And as Mayors strive to meet our goal, we’re seeing that kind of partnership, that kind of momentum all across the country.
Just take the example of Los Angeles. Now, L.A. has the largest homeless population in this country, but that didn’t stop Mayor Garcetti from boldly committing himself and his city to this challenge. So far, they’ve found permanent housing for over 5,500 veterans. (Applause.) Yes! And in September, Mayor Garcetti announced that L.A. is committing an extra $100 million to ending homelessness. He’s also enlisted Wells Fargo as a corporate partner. He’s forged relationships with landlords across the city. He’s rallying the public to chip in with donations.
So while L.A. might have the biggest problem, Mayor Garcetti isn’t getting discouraged. Instead, he’s making the biggest investment to find a solution in his city. And as he put it -- (applause) -- one of the things he said -- and this is his quote -- he said, “We will not stop until the men and women who have served and protected our country have a place to call home.”
So I’m not just here today to celebrate the extraordinary cities and mayors who’ve met the goal we set nearly two years ago. I’m also here to celebrate every city that still has work to do, but has refused to give up and has committed to trying even harder. Because none of us -- even those who have met the goal -- none of us are ever really finished with this challenge.
As long as Americans serve in harm’s way, we’ll always have new veterans transitioning to civilian life who just might need our support. And a veteran in your community who’s doing just fine today could fall on hard times tomorrow. So let’s be clear: Your work is not finished on the day you have a home for every veteran in your city.
Mayor Landrieu of New Orleans knows that. His city became the first major city to end veteran homelessness last year. I had a chance to go to New Orleans and celebrate with his phenomenal team. But Mayor Landrieu didn’t just declare victory and move on. No, no, he kept his city’s rapid response system running at full force. And they continue their nightly homeless veteran searches. And since their official announcement, New Orleans has housed an additional 156 veterans.
So when it comes to ending veterans’ homelessness, we can’t just check the box and move on. We need to keep on solving this problem every single day by moving forward. That’s why you all just launched a new Task Force on Veterans’ Homelessness, which is holding its first meeting this week.
And I want to commend Mayor Rawlings-Blake for her leadership in creating this bipartisan task force, as well as co-chairs, Mayor Giles and Mayor Landrieu. You all, thank you so much for that great work and what you all are doing. (Applause.)
See, these leaders know that solutions to this problem are right here in this room, right now. And it is so important for you all to keep coming together at events like this to share best practices and good ideas. Because your peers have provided you all with a roadmap for how to get this done. Whether you’re a big city, a small county, or an entire state -- someone just like you has done it. So today, no one can ever again doubt that it’s possible and that we know that we can solve this problem. And now that we know, we have no excuse for falling short.
So we need to keep pushing forward until we are no longer asking how do we achieve this goal, but instead we’re asking, how have we not? That’s the very least that we can do for our men and women in uniform. These folks risked their lives for this country. And in return, all they ask is for a chance to get back on their feet, find their next mission, and keep on serving the country they love.
Just take the story of Matthew Smith from Los Angeles. Growing up, Matthew was always the responsible one -- looking out for his brothers and sisters, doing everything he could to take some of the burden off of his single mother. Then he enlisted in the Army because he wanted to serve and protect the country just like he protected his siblings. But then, in his third year of service, Matthew’s grandfather passed away. And while he was home for the funeral, he was caught in the crossfire of a gang shootout. Matthew spent six months in the hospital, and when he emerged with discharge papers and chronic pain from his injuries, he found himself adrift and alone. Matthew’s life fell apart. He turned to drugs; wound up living on the streets.
But after 24 long, hard years, Matthew finally checked himself into the New Directions for Veterans center. And today, not only is Matthew in permanent housing, and not only has he gotten treatment for his substance abuse, but Matthew is a husband. He is a father. He’s a preacher. He’s a three-time employee of the month. And best of all, he’s working to help his fellow veterans.
As a Resident Services Coordinator with the same organization where he sought help, it’s now Matthew’s job to advocate for other veterans. (Applause.) Yes! He is working to get them into permanent housing, to show them the power of his example that there are better times ahead. And I had the pleasure of meeting Matthew at an event out in L.A. in 2014 where he spoke. And he closed his remarks with the simple motto that he says he uses in his work. He said, “Whatever it takes, for as long as it takes.”
And I can’t think of a better way to describe the courage, resilience and work ethic of our veterans. That’s who they are. Now let’s show them who we are. Let’s show them what it means to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes. So if you haven't yet signed up to this challenge, please do it today. Do it right now. If you’ve signed up, but you haven’t met the goal, please keep on pushing until you reach it. There are so many Matthew Smiths in our communities right now. You know them. You’ve seen them. And we need you all to keep on working to find them; keep on doing everything you can to get them back on their feet.
That’s how we’ll meet our goal of ending veterans’ homelessness in this country. And that’s how we’ll serve our veterans as well as they have served this country.
So thank you all again. Thank you for everything you’ve done, everything you will continue to do. I look forward to standing with you in the months and, yes, years ahead, continuing to shine a bright light on your extraordinary work. Thank you all, and God bless. (Applause.)
11:33 A.M. EST