Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough - Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough

National Coalition for Homeless Veterans Annual Conference
Washington, DC
June 3, 2022

Thank you, Kathryn [Monet, Director, CEO, NCHV], for that kind introduction, and for your leadership of this important organization. And thanks to everyone here. It’s a true honor to be here with you today, and to partner with you every day in this fight to end Veteran homelessness.

You know, when I think of our shared mission, I often think of a 25-year Army combat Veteran named Justin Fisher. 

Justin’s a real gentle giant—about 6 foot 3, big beard ... the type of guy my Minnesota Vikings could sorely use this upcoming season. And I heard two stories about him recently that I want to share this morning—one from his time in the service, and one from his time back home.

For the story of Justin’s service, the year was 2009, and Justin had come out of retirement to go on active duty in Iraq at the height of the war—serving as a part of the 34th Infantry Division’s Army National Guard Band... that’s Minnesota’s Red Bull.

The band’s orders on this particular day were to play at the grand reopening of a school—a school that had been bombed after allowing girls to learn science.

It might not sound like all that dangerous of a mission, but it was. There were intel reports of IEDs and other dangers on the way, but Justin and the band drove into the city, nonetheless.

Justin was glad they did, because the band had a special surprise up their sleeves for the students: They’d learned the local folk music, so they could play the kids’ favorite songs for their big day.

When they got there, Justin and the others removed their armor—exposing themselves right in the center of Basra—because it was a school, and they didn’t want to intimidate the kids.

Then they stepped inside, with instruments instead of guns, and started to play. And they played. And they played. And they played.

Eventually, they had to move the concert into the courtyard, where they were even more exposed. Because, slowly but steadily, the audience had grown from just the local students ... to some parents ... to what Justin describes as the whole community.

And all of them were dancing, and singing along, to the music ... their own music ... music they hadn’t heard live in quite some time, maybe ever. 

Justin said that it’s one of the few memories of war that he’ll take with him forever. Because, for at least a couple hours, those Iraqis were able to forget about the war. Justin was able to forget about the war.

Even though they were right in the middle of it.

The second story is about what happened when Justin retired and came home.

He was once again helping out with students, this time working as a school bus driver for the local elementary school. But his post-traumatic stress was making that difficult.

When he was driving in regular traffic, things were fine. But when he was following other buses, it reminded him of following armored vehicles in Iraq ... of the IEDs, of the danger, of all of it.

Then one day, in the middle of October, someone left exploded fireworks in the middle of the road that reminded Justin of a partially buried IED.

It sent him into a panic, and he had to pull over at the next stop.

All the peace he’d felt in the middle of war at that school in Basra was replaced with terror on a school bus in the middle of Minnesota.

And that was his last day on the job. He quit, for the good of the students.

From there, Justin struggled to find work. And before long, he and his wife and their children were homeless. After 25 years of service, Justin and his family didn’t have a home in the country that he’d fought for so long to defend.

...

I wanted to talk about Justin this morning because, I think, he’s a perfect example of the amazing people—the heroes—that we have the privilege to serve together.

The fact is that Veteran homelessness is increasingly becoming a politicized issue, and when you listen to some people talk about it, you can tell that they’re thinking of Veterans like Justin not as people, but as numbers.

But you know as well as I do that every Veteran experiencing homelessness has a story, just like Justin does. Every one of them has hopes and dreams. And every one of them deserves a home. 

They’re not numbers—they’re people. They’re heroes. And no Veteran—not Justin nor anyone else—should ever be homeless in this country they fought to defend.

In fact, “Homeless Veteran” shouldn’t be a phrase that exists in the greatest country in the world. 

They’ve fought for us, and bled for us, and—because of that—they carry the visible and invisible scars of war to this day.

All for us.

Now it’s our turn to fight for them. And that is what we do at VA and NCHV—together.

You’ve done an amazing job of that over the past couple years of the pandemic, giving homeless Veterans your very best amid the very worst of circumstances.

And at VA, this has been our top priority, too.

Housing First is, and always will be, our North Star when it comes to Veteran homelessness. And the principle of Housing First is not only guiding the way that we handle individual Veteran cases—it’s actually guiding the way that we set goals on this issue.

We’re trying to move away from setting process-based goals and move toward setting Veteran-centric goals that actually deliver on our two core missions: getting Veterans into homes, and preventing them from falling into homelessness in the first place.

Those core missions are my top priorities on this issue as Secretary of VA and as Vice Chair of USICH. Because at the end of the day, those priorities are what matters most to the Veterans we serve.

Last October, for example, we set two ambitious goals to address Veteran homelessness in LA—where there are more homeless Vets than anywhere else in America:

  • The first goal was to get all of the roughly 40 homeless Veterans living on Veterans Row—a homeless encampment out in LA—into housing by November 1st
  • The second was to get 500 Veterans in LA into housing by the end of the year… making sure they were home for the holidays.

I’m proud to say that with your help, we not only accomplished those goals—we exceeded them. We housed every Vet living on Vets Row, and we moved more than 700 Veterans in LA into housing.

I attach particular importance to these initial achievements in LA, because success there will infuse momentum across the country...

... because if we can attack this problem where it’s at its worst, we can attack it anywhere.

But those goals were just the beginning.

This year in LA, we’re going to get 1,500 more Veterans into homes; we’re going to add 180 housing units to our West LA campus, and 535 additional units of Veteran housing through project-based vouchers; we’re going to use 75% of our HUD-VASH Vouchers—which I know is less than the nationwide average, but would represent a huge step forward for LA; and we’re going to make sure that more than 50% of Veterans who receive HUD-VASH vouchers find permanent housing within 90 days.

Moreover, nationwide this year, we’re going to get 38,000 Veterans into homes.

38,000.

We’re not going to try to do it, or set process goals to help us do it... with your help, we are going to do it.

And as we do that, we will be driving hard on prevention, too.

That means increasing the housing supply where possible, like we’re doing in LA. It means making existing housing more affordable through HUD-VASH and Supportive Services for Veteran Families. It means helping unsheltered Veterans get off the street through the Grant and Per Diem program. And it means learning every Veteran’s unique story—and getting them the wraparound services they need.

Whether a Veteran needs assistance addressing physical or mental health challenges, substance use disorder, justice involvement, or anything else, we’re going to be there for them, and we’re going to help.

So, the bottom line is, those two overarching goals—getting Veterans into homes, and preventing them from falling into homelessness in the first place... they’re all that matters to Veterans, so they’re all that matters to us. And we will deliver on them 

Now, I’ll close with one more note on Justin, whose story—fortunately—has a happy ending.

He’s got a great farm now—5 acres. He and his family are doing great. He recently became a grandpa. And I’m proud to say that he’s been working at VA for 7 years. It’s everything he so rightly deserves.

But the thing is, I didn’t tell Justin’s story today because it was unique. I told it because it’s not unique.

As you know all too well, there are so many more Justins out there—incredible public servants, Veterans, who are homeless or teetering on the edge—and whose stories are still being written...

…the endings of which are still very much hanging in the balance.

It’s our responsibility at VA to do everything in our power to make those Veterans’ stories end happily.

And make no mistake: we cannot do that work without you.

We couldn’t have accomplished our goals in LA without you. We won’t be able to get 38,000 Veterans into homes this year without you. And we won’t be able to prevent Veteran homelessness in the way we need to, without you.

Because this fight against Veteran homelessness takes all of us, all across the country.

And if we all work together, it’s a fight we can win ... a fight we will win. And in so doing, we will help Veterans like Justin write the happy endings to their stories that they deserve.

Thank you so much for having me, and for your partnership.

May God bless our nation’s Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors—and may we always give them our very best.