Flanked by Veterans, mayors and state leaders committed to ending homelessness among Veterans, First Lady Michelle Obama announced the launch of the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness at the White House, yesterday. The Challenge seeks to secure commitments from local leaders to end homelessness among Veterans by 2015, using evidence-based approaches as outlined in Opening Doors and through collaboration with community partners.
"We have made great progress over the past few years because of leaders like all of you who refuse to accept Veteran homelessness as a fact of life," said Mrs. Obama. "And now we have to finish the job once and for all, because when a Veteran comes home kissing the ground, it is unacceptable that he should ever have to sleep on it."
Mrs. Obama was introduced by Veteran Chris Fuentes, who served in Iraq, and shared how when she returned from active duty, “My apartment and my job were gone.” She had to leave her daughter with her mother while she moved from place to place, including stints living out of her car.
“I knew that if I had a roof over my head, I could move forward,” said Fuentes. A fellow Veteran told her about HUD-VASH and other programs that eventually allowed her to find an apartment, get a security deposit, fix her car and ultimately reunite with her daughter. She now attends college with the GI Bill and is still a reservist.
“I’m here to tell every Veteran about these programs,” Fuentes said. “They don’t have to worry about where they lay their head at night.”
The Mayors Challenge is a joint effort of the First Lady, Joining Forces, USICH, the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Veterans Affairs (VA), and mayors, governors and county leaders around the country. Through the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, mayors and other state and local leaders across the country will marshal federal, local, and non-profit efforts to end Veteran homelessness in their communities by the end of 2015. Ending Veteran homelessness means reaching the point where there are no Veterans sleeping on our streets and every Veteran has access to permanent housing. Should Veterans become homeless or be at-risk of becoming homeless, communities will have the capacity to quickly connect them to the help they need to achieve housing stability. When those things are accomplished, our nation will achieve its goal.
The launch also included two panel discussions, the first led by USICH Executive Director Laura Green Zeilinger and included National Alliance to End Homelessness Vice President for Programs Steve Berg, New York Harbor Healthcare System VA Director Martina Parauda, Houston’s Special Assistant for Homeless Initiatives Mandy Chapman Semple and National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans Director Vince Kane. A mayors' panel included a discussion with Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown, Houston Mayor Annise Parker and St. Paul, Minnesota, Mayor Chris Coleman. Each discussed the best practices for ending homelessness among Veterans, including the use of data and evidence-based programs, along with the convening – and funding – powers of mayors to make the greatest impact.
“Your commitment is not an empty pledge. Your leadership paves the way for progress. Your leadership provides the momentum we need to reach the goal, the momentum our Veterans need to achieve stability and opportunity," said Zeilinger to mayors and local leaders.
“With Opening Doors, the first-ever federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness, this Administration made ending Veteran homelessness a national priority,” Zeilinger said. “The progress we’ve made has put this goal in close reach. Now is the time to act with greater urgency and resolve. We call on every mayor and local leader to convene community partners, focus efforts on outcomes and instill relentless accountability to deliver on this commitment for every single one of our Veterans.”
On a single night in January 2013, 57,849 Veterans were experiencing homelessness. That represents a 24 percent decrease in homelessness among Veterans since 2010, when Opening Doors was released.
Mrs. Obama acknowledged and thanked USICH Executive Director Laura Zeilinger for her leadership as the nation progresses on a path to end Veteran homelessness.
“I want to recognize someone who doesn’t get a lot of attention, and that is Laura Zeilinger. Her reputation precedes her,” said Mrs. Obama. “For many of the advancements we’ve made..., it’s been because of the Council’s work to streamline and coordinate our efforts across agencies. So I want to thank Laura and everyone from the Council for their outstanding leadership and service.”
Is your community committed to ending Veteran homelessness? Find out which mayors have signed on to the Challenge and learn how you can encourage local leaders to step up by visiting the Mayors Challenge page. Comment below about the progress your community is making.