Cheryl, thank you for that kind introduction, and thank you all for that warm welcome. Cheryl and I first met at the department shortly after I assumed my duties as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. HUD Secretary Sean Donovan and I met with Cheryl, George Basher, and the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCVH) Board of Directors. I’d already met with George and members of VA’s Advisory Committee on Homeless Veterans two weeks earlier. These two meetings left three early impressions:
First, they reminded me about the large number of our Nation’s homeless Veterans and the problems facing them. Second, they exposed me to the tremendously good works that NCVH, among others, bring to this equation in the tireless work to alleviate and, eventually, eliminate homelessness among America’s Veterans. Finally, those meetings reinforced deeply the genuine goodness, compassion, and commitment of the men and women on the front lines of this fight against homelessness. The tremendous work of your board and of VA’s Advisory Committee on Homeless Veterans remind me of William Faulkner’s declaration upon accepting the Nobel Prize for literature nearly 60 years ago:
“I decline,” he said in Oslo in 1950, “to accept the end of man. I believe that man will not merely endure; he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone, among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
That spirit he describes is what brings us together this morning—the same noble spirit that infuses hearts and fuels the labors of all in our efforts to seek out, to comfort, and to help lift up our Nation’s homeless Veterans. It will take all of us to succeed in our mission to safely return every homeless Veteran from the streets of our Nation.
I commend the coalition for the tens of thousands of hours of hands-on work you put in every year, developing and sharing new strategies to address homelessness, helping other organizations navigate the maze of federal grants so that they, too, can be successful in their homeless initiatives, working with VA and our federal colleagues at HUD, HHS, Labor, DoD, SBA, Education and others to coordinate our efforts to bring into sharper focus the resources needed not only to mitigate and eliminate homelessness, but to prevent its occurrence in the first place.
During a virtual town hall meeting last March 2008, President Obama made clear that homelessness among Veterans is unacceptable. He said, “the homeless rate for Veterans is multiple times higher than it is for non-Veterans. That's inexcusable. We're going to make sure that homeless Veterans are receiving housing and services.”
Tomorrow night you are going to honor the president with the Jerald Washington Memorial Founders' Award. His early work as a community organizer provided him first hand experience about the devastation that is homelessness—for individuals, for families, and for communities. Now, as our president and as our Commander-in-Chief, he is committed to combating this stain on the American conscience.
Homelessness is a blight on our society. We will all continue to be something much less than our ennobling democratic ideals so long as we carry on our rolls so many for whom our promises remain unfulfilled. We have a moral duty to prevent and eliminate homelessness among Veterans.
Each of us, taking a piece of this problem and synchronizing our efforts, can help eradicate homelessness in our time. But to be truly transformational, we must go beyond promise; we must strive to return even the most troubled and challenged amongst us to productive, independent lives.
The president has asked us to transform the department into a 21st century organization that will serve the well-being of Veterans for generations to come. My intent is to seek ways to increase access, improve benefits, and raise quality of services, all at lower costs. Can we do this? Can we harmonize and discipline these competing principles? I’m not exactly sure what it will take, but I don’t think we’ll get there by telling one another how good we are. We have to begin by telling each other how much better we can be.
As they say in Central Texas, you can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time; you have to do one or the other. i’m all for rolling up our sleeves.
Make no mistake about it, change is difficult. It’s demanding on the leadership; it’s threatening to the inflexible; it undercuts the power base of those who are currently comfortable and powerful; it saps the energy of senior leadership, whose strength and commitment are necessary to see things through. If you are committed to excellence, change is about being better.
Technological advances will always be important to any organization’s functioning, but technological advances alone do not make us better. Bank accounts and new buildings don’t make mission. Hospitals and clinics don’t outreach or heal. VISNs don’t take risks, don’t nurture, don’t console or inspire. The people who populate those spaces do; transformation is about people, about enabling them to exercise initiative so they can challenge all the assumptions. And where people are concerned, leadership counts.
In much the same way, lifting homeless Veterans out of the shadows of lives lived in limbo is about leadership. Leadership, innovation, and initiative—those qualities are crucial, if we are going to change the culture of this department in important ways that enable us to cure homelessness. And it is those qualities that frame the work of NCVH. Your leadership is sound, your philosophy and practices are forward looking, and you are well-regarded nationally.
Homeless Veterans are not an isolated group. What happens to them, what we do, or do not do, to address their needs, has repercussions across the entire fabric of our society.
In our battle to wrest back homeless Veterans from the streets and back alleys, we have some wonderful, compassionate, and broad reaching programs in progress:
Now, the list of programs already in place is impressive, and the achievements of those programs, thanks to the men and women behind the numbers, is gratifying. But we must do more. This year, we will spend $2.8 billion to provide health care and specialized homeless programs. Our proposed budget for next year requests an additional $400 million increase. These funds will allow us to make bold improvements.
HUD-VASH [Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supported Housing], has undergone a transformation of its own. In December, 2007, Congress approved funding for HUD to create 10,000 new units of Section 8 housing for homeless Veterans and families. An additional 10,000 units of Section 8 housing was approved in March, 2009; VA and HUD program staff are working now on the placement of those units.
Today, VA is announcing the creation of a National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans. The center is VA’s first opportunity to develop, promote, and enhance policy, clinical care research, and education to improve homeless services so that Veterans may live as independently and self-sufficiently as possible in a community of their choosing. The center’s outreach will be co-located with the Philadelphia and Tampa VA Medical Centers (VAMCs) with the support of host-site academic affiliates, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of South Florida.
These programs, and others that are helping to open doors to better futures for homeless Veterans, deserve praise. But they must be augmented by programs that avert the threat of homelessness before it has a chance to take root.
That is the thrust of the At-Risk of Homeless Pilot. Based upon appropriations from the Congress, VA and HUD are collaborating on a pilot designed to address Veterans and families at risk of homelessness. Based upon the availability of funding, we believe HUD will be able to fund housing and supportive services at up to 10 locations, and VA will provide staff to work with Veterans and families. We expect this pilot will roll out later this year.
As many in this audience know, our programs within VA and in communities continue to grow. Veterans often come to us in need of services now, not next week or next month, but now. Our prevention efforts will be enhanced by providing new contract care for Veterans who need housing and services in locations where such services are in limited supply. My goal is to have no “wrong door” phenomena—Veterans who seek assistance should find it, either in VA internal programs, from you, our community partners, or through enhanced, contracted services.
I currently chair the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. In that role, and in my role as Secretary of VA, my intent is to be as inclusive as possible. In addition to overseeing our VA programs on homelessness, I have asked Pete Dougherty to serve as the acting Executive Director to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness as an additional duty; you simply can’t work a good horse hard enough. Our efforts will be designed to create even stronger partnerships at the federal level, with the goal of simplifying the confusing and overlapping requirements of programs and services that sometimes confuses those we seek to help.
We look forward to working with this coalition. Your community-level experience has helped tens of thousands of Veterans with a variety of problems. Your expertise is respected, and I look forward to being your partner as we eliminate homelessness among Veterans.
Thank you for the tremendously good work you do. I’m honored to have been here today.