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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson

National Apartment Association Board of Directors
Washington, DC
March 8, 2016

I’ve been at VA for about two years now, but I haven’t forgotten what it feels like to look at the Federal government from the outside in—to think about what the American people expect of government.

Governmental departments working collaboratively, rather than functioning as silos. Federal agencies working with states and counties and cities in true inter-governmental collaboration. Processes engaging NGOs and the private sector in meaningful public-private partnerships. Programs tackling significant challenges and providing appropriate support to those among us in greatest need. Goals and objectives based on measureable outcomes for those served. Sustained effort and steady progress reported year by year against those outcomes.

In my view, those are the characteristics of good governance, of best-in-class collaboration. Collaborations, teaming, partnerships, affiliations—alliance of all sorts are essential to good business in the 21st century. And on behalf of the Veterans we serve, VA’s heavily engaged in just that sort of best-in-class collaboration.

Since I arrived at VA, I’ve found three areas where I don’t believe any organization can meet the challenge on its own. One is mental health. One is career transition. And the third is Veteran homelessness. Let me focus on Veteran homelessness.

In 2010, VA determined to bring an end to Veteran homelessness. But VA alone could never accomplish all that was necessary to make that a reality. So we set about building strong, productive partnerships. Now we’re working closely with 4,000 public and private partners nationwide. We partnered with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. We’re partnered with state and local governments and with both non-profit and for-profit organizations in the private sector.

In March of 2014, we launched our 25 Cities Initiative to help end Veterans homelessness—partnering with communities with the highest concentrations of homeless Veterans to intensify and integrate local efforts. That same June, the First Lady announced the Mayors Challenge to End Veterans Homelessness. So far, 869 leaders have answered the challenge—including 690 mayors, nine governors, and 170 county and city officials.

New Orleans was first to end Veteran homelessness. Today, 25 communities and two states have put the systems in place to successfully meet the challenge to end Veteran homelessness. If your community hasn’t taken the challenge, it’s not too late. We’re not committed to a date, but to the Veteran. And we’re not resting until every Veteran has a safe and stable place to call home.

Since 2010, overall Veteran homelessness has dropped by 36 percent. We’ve seen a nearly 50 percent drop in unsheltered Veteran homelessness. Since 2010, more than 360,000 Veterans and their family members have been permanently housed, rapidly rehoused, or prevented from falling into homelessness.

In 2015 alone, VA provided services to more than 365,000 homeless or at-risk Veterans in our homeless programs. Nearly 65,000 Veterans obtained permanent housing through VHA Homeless Programs interventions. More than 36,000 Veterans and their family members—including 6,555 children—were prevented from becoming homeless.

These are Veterans with supportive services to keep them in their home.

These are Veterans who’ve re-joined the community. These are Veterans who can contribute to the strength, vibrancy, and economic vitality of their communities.

Two factors are driving this success: collaboration and good government and a winning strategy. First, collaboration—local leaders on the ground in every city taking charge, marshalling available resources, and forging connections among the many partners it takes to make this work.

Second, a winning strategy called “Housing First.” Housing First means getting Veterans into housing, and then meeting their clinical and other needs. Central to the success of the Housing First approach is a collaborative program between HUD and VA—HUD-VASH vouchers.

Eligible Veterans experiencing homelessness receive a Housing Choice rental voucher from HUD. They’re paired with VA case management and supportive services to help them sustain housing stability and their recovery from physical and behavioral health issues, and address other challenges.

Another program—Supportive Services for Veteran Families, or SSVF—is critical, as well. SSVF funds community-based, nonprofit organizations to provide security deposits and rental subsidies and case management services. This helps ensure housing is stable and successful. The goal is for the Veteran to take over full responsibility for the lease and the rent.

Does it work? Last year, SSVF saved more than 60,000 Veterans from eviction.

And 85 percent of Veterans who enter VASH progress to leasing-up and stay housed after signing their lease.

Now, I know there may be some apprehension about welcoming a formerly homeless Veteran to your community. So let me be clear about the Veterans HUD-VASH serves.

The targeted populations are chronically homeless. Some are challenged with mental health issues like PTSD. Substance abuse often accompanies PTSD. But to participate in HUD-VASH, the Veteran must accept wrap-around services. Newly housed Veterans receive case management and individualized supportive services to sustain housing and build their lives. Multidisciplinary teams provide many of the services. The team may include a social worker, a nurse, a peer support specialist, substance use counselor, and job developer. The team tailors the right services for Veterans so they get precise assistance leading to a permanent home in the community.

And it works thanks to a lot of good people—people like Karla Ross out in Amarillo, Texas. Is Karla here? Raise your hand.

Here’s what Karla shared about her HUD-VASH experiences. She said, “I’ve really had a good feeling about the program—the follow through and follow up. VA case workers are wonderful. They always tell me, ‘If you have any problems or questions, call.’ They are really working to help [Veterans] get back on their feet, to reintegrate [back into their communities]. I think it’s a wonderful program. I can’t say enough about it,” she said.

Karla sees it like this: “When you think about someone laying his life on the line and protecting our country, the least you can do is rent him an apartment.”

Karla—thanks.

Christine LaMarca out in San Diego told us, “I think the program works very well. I’ve had very positive experiences with the [Veteran] residents I’ve gotten, and it makes me feel really good. [Veterans] come with a wrap-around service appointed by VA whom you can go to if there’s a problem. I’ve got that number and can make the phone call. It gives me another market for filling my vacancies. It’s a reliable source of income without the headache. The people at VA have been giving me more [tenants] than I can even imagine.”

Christine added, “The big thing—it’s the right thing to do as an American.”

Christine and Karla are correct—it is the right thing to do as Americans. But it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.

Can we imagine any situation where we wouldn’t welcome people who put service before self, who bridge differences to accomplish great things, who persevere even in the face of daunting obstacles?

I just looked at a report on HUD-VASH vouchers. Over 63,000 Veterans are currently housed through that program. But over 6,500 Veterans with vouchers in hand are seeking housing.

Anybody here like 6,500 new stable, dependable tenants?

I know where you can find them.

They’re people like student Veteran Sue and her three kids. They moved to New York City and ended up sleeping on floors until the local housing authority gave her a HUD-VASH voucher and coordinated down payment with SSVF. Here’s what Sue said, “[My kids and I] can sleep on a bed [instead of] an inflatable mattress. I can concentrate on my studies to graduate [and] gain employment.”

They’re people like Robin. Robin transitioned from the Army without any support. She found herself homeless, but earned her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in transitional housing. Now she’s a homeowner working at VA, applying her skills and her experiences to help other homeless Veterans.

They’re people like Marine Veteran Mike Horton here in Washington, D.C. Mike had a successful twenty-year career in telecommunications. Mike lost his job when his company hit hard times. When Mike was homeless, he worked hard to improve his situation when he was in shelters. But having a home made it much easier to get back on his feet. So now a year after getting permanent housing, Mike’s the Director of Business Development for the National Association of Concerned Veterans.

Naturally, he’s pretty passionate about helping other Veterans facing challenges, helping people like Eddie. After serving in the Army, Eddie suffered from mental health challenges and substance abuse. He was homeless for many years. When he was ready, he signed up for VA services, got a HUD-VASH voucher, and now he’s working—paying his own bills and his own rent. Eddie succeeded because he wanted to change his life.

And that’s what HUD-VASH is about—helping Veterans who are ready to succeed again.

Fourteen VA medical centers each have more than 100 Veterans like Sue, Robin, Mike, and Eddie—vouchers in hand and ready to succeed again. These are Veterans waiting to lease-up in Seattle, Washington. They’re in San Francisco, Palo Alto, the Greater Los Angeles community, Loma Linda, Long Beach, and San Diego. In Denver, Houston, and Detroit. In Hampton, Virginia, and Bay Pines and Orlando, Florida. These sites alone represent over 40 percent of the Veterans with vouchers looking for a home.

I noted the 36 percent decline in homeless Veterans since 2010. That’s good news—but it’s not good enough. There are still over 47,700 homeless Veterans in the country [according to the 2015 Point-in-Time Count].

So partner with us.

Besides serving those who’ve already served all of us, you can expect more stable and dependable rental income. You can reduce vacancy rates with quick connections with renters as soon as units are available. You have access to our staff who can address any issues that come your way.

What can you do to join us? For one thing, be willing to rent to formerly homeless Veterans or at-risk Veterans. Contact your local housing authority and VA Medical Center and tell them you’re willing to rent to Veterans. Put aside a set number of units for HUD-VASH tenants. Many of our Veterans have spotty rental histories. Many of them don’t have the cash for a down payment. Maybe you overlook issues that would normally be a barrier.

Just open the door.

While I was still with the USO, I got to visit a new USO space under construction in Tampa, Florida. While there I asked for a tour of VA’s new Polytrauma Center. A few minutes later, this crusty-looking guy in blue jeans and a cowboy hard hat showed up to take us through the construction site. It turned out to be Mike Tixier, a West Point grad I remembered from cadet days.

Mike gave us a great tour. By the time we were actually on the amazing Polytrauma floor, it was clear that he cared deeply about his work. In fact, one of the folks with me said, “Mike, you seem to be very passionate about what you're doing here.”

He paused, which made me look right at his face, and I realized there were tears in his eyes. And he said, “That's because I know who it's for.”

Let me tell you who it’s for.

Veterans have been doing the heavy lifting for our country for nearly 15 years, and they’re returning to our communities.

They’ve defended our freedom. They’ve preserved our opportunities to prosper. They and their families have made immense sacrifices. These men and women have displayed extraordinary strength and resilience. They’ve sacrificed personally for the greater good. They’ve demonstrated remarkable perseverance in the face of adversity to protect the freedoms we, as Americans, enjoy daily. They’ve worked with others, often very different than themselves, to accomplish great feats. They’ve showed care and compassion for those in need, sometimes at the risk of their own lives. They lived by the core values of Duty, Honor, and Country, and in doing so earned our trust.

At a time when the country faces so many challenges, we have the opportunity and good fortune to help them become integral parts of our communities.

It is the smart thing to do.

Saying “Thank you for your service” is important. But we all have more active roles to play. We have the responsibility to show our gratitude by embracing them—welcoming these families into our neighborhoods, schools, and churches. Let’s do everything we can to take good care of them, just like they’ve taken good care of us.

We’ve made tremendous progress bringing down Veterans homelessness.

Now let’s end it.

We’re depending on you. Much more important, our Nation’s Veterans are depending on you.

As the First Lady wrote, you’re “on the front lines. By providing access to affordable, permanent housing, you will make a lasting impact for those who have given so much to our country.”

Marc [Chairman of NAA], Members of the Board, all of you here today—thanks for sharing your time with us this morning.