Remarks by the First Lady at Veterans' Homelessness Conference
1:25 P.M. EST
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you all so much. (Applause.) You all, please, please. Thanks so much. Welcome.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Run for President! (Laughter.)
MRS. OBAMA: Be quiet back there. (Laughter.)
Well, this is a wonderful day for us all, and I’m so happy that we're here together.
Let me start by thanking Mr. Banks for that wonderful introduction. I got to meet Mr. Banks earlier today because he invited me over to his house, so I thought I’d return the favor and invite Mr. Banks over to my house. But, as I told him, he is a role model. And he said, no, not me. And I said, yes, yes, because there are a lot of veterans out there just like Mr. Banks who aren’t aware of the many resources that are there for them. And I think, as I told Mr. Banks, his story is going to help a lot of people get the support that they need and deserve.
So I am grateful to you, Mr. Banks, for having the courage to tell your story and to do it in the White House. So thank you so much. It was an honor spending time with you. (Applause.)
So as we gather here at the White House, I just want to take a moment to echo what my husband said last week about the results of our election. He said that we are all on one team -- not Democrats first or Republicans first, but we are Americans first. We're patriots first. (Applause.)
And as I look around this room, I deeply feel the truth in those words. Because I see people here who I imagine belong to all different parties, maybe no party at all. And when it comes to supporting our American heroes, none of that matters, because this is something that we can all agree on. Am I right? (Applause.)
Our love, our gratitude, our admiration for our men and women in uniform, our veterans and their families -- all of that is bigger than any one party or any one election. And we need to continue coming together to do this vitally important work at every level of government -- from our cities and towns all the way up to right here in the White House. And that’s what you all have been doing for so many years now. That's why we wanted to have you here today.
And as I look around, I see a lot of familiar faces, including folks who have been our partners since the day we first launched Joining Forces. And I have to tell you that back then, when we were first getting started and we were traveling around talking with folks in military communities and learning about existing efforts to support them, I was struck by how, so often, when it comes to honoring our military, we focus on symbolic things -- parades and medals and ceremonies. We give speeches and pin ribbons onto uniforms, etch names into walls. And all that is fine, but too often, all those tributes, all those words aren’t always backed up by action.
And that felt like such a stark contrast to me, because, as we all know, our military is all about action. When trouble breaks out, our men and women in uniform, they don’t just sit around thinking about it or talking about it -- they act. They put on that uniform. They leave their loved ones behind. They go out there. They give orders. They follow orders. They do whatever it takes to keep our country safe. And they carry that ethic with them when they return to civilian life, becoming leaders in our communities, universities, our workplaces.
And that’s what they need from us -- they need action. Our veterans who fall on hard times and find themselves without a home deserve more than just handwringing or kind words. They deserve real help that gets them back on their feet. (Applause.)
And that’s really been our entire approach to Joining Forces. We believe that if we truly want to serve our veterans and military families, then we need to take action that they can see and feel in their daily lives. And that’s particularly true when it comes to veterans’ homelessness, especially since we actually know what we need to do to address this issue.
This is an identifiable population of people. We know who they are. We know what they need. And while it’s not easy, it is absolutely possible to solve this problem once and for all if we all come together and we take action. (Applause.) That’s the whole idea behind the Mayors Challenge: To set the highest possible goal -– the goal of ending veterans’ homelessness shouldn’t exist -– and to call on folks across this country to meet that goal.
And all of you here have stepped up to answer that call in ways that we never could have dreamed of. You built teams in your cities to create lists of every homeless veteran. You tracked them down and you got them into housing. You worked with CEOs, with landlords, mental health providers -- anyone who has a role to play in helping our veterans. You coordinated health care, housing vouchers, job training. I could go on.
And the results have been nothing short of breathtaking. Thirty-five communities, including four of the largest cities in America, and three states –- Virginia, Connecticut and Delaware –- have all ended veterans’ homelessness. (Applause.) And America’s largest city, New York City, has reduced veterans’ homelessness by 85 percent. So they’re almost there. (Applause.) And of the 35 communities that have achieved the goal, three of them achieved it just in the last week.
So we just keep moving forward, day after day, step by step. Altogether, we have cut veterans’ homelessness nearly in half since 2010. (Applause.) And we reduced it by 17 percent last year alone. And through VA programs, we’ve helped house 354,000 veterans and their families.
Again, these are breathtaking accomplishments, especially when you consider the real human stories behind each of those numbers. Stories like Mr. Banks. Stories like another Vietnam-era veteran named Larry Mainor.
Larry left the Army. When he left, he struggled with addiction, and for 30 years he was on the streets. Like too many veterans we hear about, he was spending nights under bridges or in cars, even sleeping out in the woods. But then Larry entered a homeless assistance program through VA, and with the help of the HUD-VASH supportive housing program, Larry was able to move into his own apartment. See, and the beauty is, when you get a house, place to live, then you can get a lot done.
So Larry got sober. He enrolled in culinary school. He met a wonderful woman. He fell in love -- that’s why I gave you those two mugs. (Laughter.) And last year, on Veterans Day, Larry and his partner, they got married. And today, when Larry wakes up in the morning, instead of thinking about alcohol or drugs, he’s thinking about all the good things in his life. And he said -- and these are his words -- he said, “Larry is somebody now.” (Applause.)
That’s what a house can do. It’s what giving our heroes a home can do. It can make them feel like somebody. Just think about the folks who don’t have a home, how they must feel.
So we are making real progress. We are absolutely on our way to solving this problem. And we cannot let up for a single minute. Can’t do it. Because we all know how this issue works. We all know that as long as our fellow Americans are serving in harm’s way, we will always have new veterans transitioning to civilian life who might need our support. And a veteran who’s doing just fine today could hit on hard times tomorrow.
So our work is never finished. It’s not finished. The day that we find homes for every veteran, it’s still not finished. We can never just pat ourselves on the back and move on to the next thing, not on this issue. On this issue, it takes continuous and unwavering attention and action no matter what else is going on in this country.
And I especially want to focus on this point right now during this time of transition. As my husband and other elected officials across America leave office and new administrations come into power -- because I know that cities and states in this very room today have been able to solve this problem even with changes in leadership. So it is definitely possible to continue this work from one administration to the next. And I fully expect that to happen with the transition to our next President -- (applause) -- as well as with all the mayors and governors and other elected officials out there who are going to be transitioning in the coming year.
Our servicemembers, veterans and military families deserve nothing less. They should never be content, ever again, with soothing platitudes or empty words. And what we’ve all achieved so far should be just the beginning. This is just one step. We should expect that any presidential administration that comes after us, God, I hope they far surpass what we’ve accomplished. I want to look back in eight years, in twelve years, twenty years, and say, man, what we did back in the Obama administration, we only scratched the surface. (Laughter.) It’s like, call it what you want -- Joining Forces, name it after whatever you want -- we have no pride in credit. We just want the bar to be high. That’s what folks should expect from their Commander-in-Chief and from all their elected officials. (Applause.)
But you all have to be those voices out there. So while this might be my last time coming before you as First Lady, today isn’t any kind of an ending for me. (Laughter.) We’re just getting started. And today -- yeah. (Applause.)
So today, I want you all to know how proud I am of everything you’ve achieved -- truly, it has been amazing to watch you all step up -- and how grateful I am for your outstanding work on this issue. I’m so excited to see everything you all will continue to accomplish in the years ahead. And know that Barack and I will continue to do our part wherever we are to lift up our military community. You don’t get exposure to this community and ever, ever forget. So we’re there for you, whatever the future holds for us.
Thank you all. God Bless. (Applause.)
1:42 P.M. EST