By Shaun Donovan, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
One of the most important experiences in my life was the time I spent volunteering at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter while in college. My shifts there, including many from 3:00 to 5:00 in the morning, opened my eyes to the joy of service in ways I had never experienced before. This work was not just about giving people homes for the night. It was about giving them hope for the future and a chance for a fresh start in life.
To be a part of these transformative efforts, even in a small way, was incredibly humbling. Soon into my time as a volunteer, I made an important realization: that while I was working to make a positive impact for those I served, they were making an even bigger impact on me.
They taught me to look at people in new ways. They showed me how to look at problems in a different light. The shelter led me to gain a deeper understanding of myself and the world around me.
My time there also helped me decide that I wanted to devote a big part of my life to service. And so many years later, I still carry the lessons I learned at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter with me in the work I do every day at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
At the heart of this work is an understanding that people experiencing homelessness are not a monolithic group. Instead, they are individuals who comprise a diversity of groups – each with their own unique issues. That is why at HUD we’re being creative and innovative by delivering tailored support of different communities.
Through President Obama’s Opening Doors plan, the United States’ first comprehensive strategy to prevent and end homelessness, we have helped more than a million Americans get their lives on track.
We’ve implemented an effective rapid re-housing approach that quickly rehouses families after they lose their homes so they don’t fall into the cycle of homelessness. We’ve advanced the Housing First model in order to help those experiencing homelessness find a place to live first, so they can begin to address other issues in their lives. HUD and Veterans Affairs have worked in partnership like never before, using unprecedented evidence-based research to help Veterans who have served our country so courageously.
We’re also working to make sure every person is treated with dignity and respect. One way that we’ve done so is by creating a new requirement that helps keep families together in shelters.
In the past, it was possible for a family entering as shelter to get separated. The most common occurrences involved a boy over a certain age being separated from his mother and other siblings or a family getting separated by gender- a mother and daughter in one shelter and a father and son in a different one.
Starting last year, we now require all programs that receive grants from HUD to end these practices and ensure that families can stay together. This is an important step in treating all people who are experiencing homelessness with humanity.
This work is generating real results. Last month, HUD released its annual Point-in-Time count, a snapshot of how many people are experiencing homelessness, either on the street or in a shelter, on a given night in January. The numbers since 2010 when Opening Doors was created are encouraging: chronic homelessness has dropped 16 percent; homelessness among families has declined eight percent; and homelessness among Veterans fell an incredible 24 percent.
When I realized during my time volunteering that I wanted to spend a great part of my life committed to service, I never imagined I would end up part of an Administration that has made an unprecedented commitment to reducing homelessness. I’m proud of the work we’ve done at HUD that has helped ease the burdens too many of our fellow Americans are facing. I know that in shelters across the country, just like the one in Harvard Square, people are doing important, unglamorous work that is having a profound influence on so many lives.
For more from USICH's human rights series, visit http://usich.gov/issue/human-rights/.