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Executive Director Poppe: Address to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans

6/6/11                                          

Download the slides that accompany this speech

Good morning.  It is wonderful to be back with all of you this year. Thank you, John for your kind introduction. You are a true Opening Doors ambassador and I am grateful for to be in partnership with NCHV. I would also like to acknowledge how lucky we all are to have Secretary Donovan as our HUD Secretary. His leadership last year as Council chair was instrumental to ensuring we had a strong federal strategic plan. Equally important is Secretary Shinseki and his clarion call to end Veterans homelessness. Both Secretaries are backed up by talented staff who are working together to achieve the vision.

I’m also delighted that Col David Sutherland from the Office of the Joint Chief of Staff will be here. Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen has made it clear that we must move in a coordinated fashion to achieve positive outcomes for men and women leaving the military.

And last but certainly not least, we’ll hear from our ally Assistant Secretary Ray Jefferson who is ably representing USICH Chair and Labor Secretary, my boss Hilda Solis .  Labor has shown a real commitment to helping Veterans who are homeless find and keep a job.
Last year at this time, we were putting the finishing touches on Opening Doors, the first ever federal plan to prevent and end homelessness. Later this month we will mark the anniversary of the release of the Plan. I am proud of the progress we’ve made and to be part of an Administration that is strongly committed to the goals, timelines, and strategies articulated in the Plan. This commitment is demonstrated by the President’s strong Fiscal Year 2011 and 2012 Budget requests.

My remarks this morning are laid out to describe the mission we are all undertaking together. I’ll briefly review the goals of Opening Doors and the progress we have made collectively; I will underscore the importance of committing to Housing First strategies; and finally, emphasize the importance of collaboration – it is the only way we will achieve ZERO homeless Veterans by 2015.

SLIDE 2
Last year was a historical moment for all of us who have labored in this fight to end homelessness. I am proud to serve a President who shares our commitment and has made ending Veterans homelessness a priority.

SLIDE 3
Clear goals, timeframes, and strategies underpin our work with communities. As you know, that is what Opening Doors has laid out -- end chronic and Veterans homelessness by 2015; prevent and end homelessness among families, youth, and children by 2020; and set a path to ending all types of homelessness.

SLIDE 4
The 52 strategies within the Plan are organized around five key themes. Leadership, collaboration, and civic engagement are necessary to effectively mobilize the resources required. Access to stable and affordable housing is essential since having a place to call home is the primary solution.  Providing opportunities for economic security through employment and income support is critical for many people who experience homelessness. For many others, the ability to address health conditions can both prevent and end homelessness. Finally retooling the homeless crisis response system will ensure better targeting, quick housing, and improved use of resources.

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With the launch of Opening Doors last June, we immediately turned to implementation.  Joining together with the more than 300,000 people who’ve downloaded the plan, we are taking the necessary steps to make progress and achieve the kind of justice Martin Luther King spoke about.

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So what has happened over the last year to take us closer to our goal of ending Veterans homelessness?

Within the federal government, we are laying the groundwork for future success through better collaboration, better data collection, and engaging states and local communities in the goals and strategies set forth in Opening Doors.

For the first time ever, HUD and the VA earlier this year came together to publish an authoritative analysis of the extent and nature of homelessness among America’s veterans.  Beyond the overall figures, the Veterans AHAR supplement documented that Veterans are fifty percent more likely to become homeless compared to all Americans and the risk is even greater among minority veterans living in poverty, female and young veterans. And nearly half of homeless veterans were located in California, Texas, New York and Florida while only 28 percent of all veterans were located in those same four States.

As you know, and you’ll hear more of  later, Secretary Solis is a strong advocate for female Veterans. She is leading the move toward a more culturally competent response across the federal government to address the increasing rate of homelessness among female Veterans and their families.

We’re also implementing new approaches.  For example, HUD, Labor, and VA have just launch a Prevention pilot at five sites around the country. It is truly ground-breaking. Designed to explore innovative early interventions to help prevent veteran homelessness, the pilot seeks out service members returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Housing, supportive services, health care and employment assistance – both mainstream and targeted -- are integrated through a community effort to Veterans and their families to keep them from having to enter a homeless shelter or live on the street.

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Our administration is also working hard to spread the message that ending Veterans homelessness is not only the right thing to do, it’s also possible.

Both the First Lady and the Second Lady have become undisputed champions of our nation’s Veterans and their families. Their attention and focus on the issue has culminated in the Joining Forces Initiative.

Last December, VA and USICH organized a two day National Forum on Veterans Homelessness that was attended by three Cabinet Secretaries. The goal was to get everyone in the field working together to reach the five year goal.  The VA working with federal, local and state partners, is continuing this effort in communities across the country to accomplish this goal.

Despite these accomplishments, we are concerned that the resources to fully implement Opening Doors are at risk. The President’s FY2011 budget proposal was not fully funded. This means that the landmark bi-partisan homelessness reform legislation – the HEARTH Act won’t be fully implemented this year. Opening Doors’ signature initiatives for family and chronic homelessness are deferred as well.  As we approach the full spend down of the Recovery Act’s HPRP program, communities are struggling to figure out how to maintain the progress. We’ll need your support to push for full funding of the President’s FY2012 Budget proposal.

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Across the country, Grant and Per Diem programs are making strides towards implementing best practices. I want to call out the folks from Soldier On in Massachusetts who serve Veterans through shelter, transitional, and permanent housing. Along with substance abuse treatment and life skills program, their focus is employment and vocational skill building. Soldier On’s focus on employment and connection with local employers is the type of response we envisioned in the Opening Doors’ strategies for employment and income.
Economic security through employment and income is important. Everyone needs a home they can afford. The best defense against homelessness is a good paying job. All of us will agree, employing our Veterans is crucial and there is a ton of work that needs to be done in this area. Secretary Solis is committed to ensuring that the Department of Labor is a leader in creating opportunities for Veterans to get the training and support they need to improve their skills in order to compete for well paying jobs.  Like Soldier On, organizations across the country must implement best practices in employment strategies and fully coordinate with housing and healthcare.

In addition, we must also improve access to the income supports that are available to Veterans who have low incomes. Veterans are citizens first, and they and their families should also be linked to mainstream programs that they are eligible for.  By leveraging these programs we can both prevent and end homelessness.

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Veterans who are homeless need a home!  Housing First recognizes that fundamental need.

Some of you may be skeptical that Housing First works.  I know I certainly was having been a provider of abstinence-based transitional housing using a therapeutic community model.  I was however convinced when I saw the successes that were occurring across the country.

One of those who convinced me was Sam Tsemberis, the founder of Pathways to Housing. Their model provides housing in apartments scattered throughout a community. This model fosters a sense of home and self-determination, and it helps speed the reintegration of Pathways’ clients into the community.

Sam challenges skeptics - who believe Housing First enables people as opposed to helping them get better.  The offer of housing first, and then treatment, actually has more effective results in reducing addiction and mental health symptoms, than trying to do it the other way.

And this is exactly where all of us in this room come in. Housing First ends homelessness. We must adopt Housing First as a best practice in our communities; it is the only way we are going to get to ZERO.

Slide 10
Housing First supportive housing minimizes barriers to housing access or pre-conditions of housing readiness, sobriety, or engagement in treatment. Participants move directly from the streets and shelters into permanent housing.  Individualized supportive services help residents maintain housing stability and improvements in the quality of their life.

These low barrier practices seek to “screen in” rather than “screen out” and end homelessness for people with the greatest barriers to housing success.

Evaluations of Housing First permanent supportive housing have demonstrated significant improvements in housing stability and reductions in days of homelessness. And when it comes to cost-effectiveness there is no better strategy for the ever tightening state and local social services budget. The reductions in the utilization and costs of public services from emergency shelter, hospital emergency room and inpatient care, sobering centers, and jails are substantial.

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A great example of this is Piquette Square in Detroit.  It is a new 150 unit apartment complex providing housing to homeless veterans.  Comprehensive services and a supportive community ensure that veterans can get back on their feet, become self-sufficient and ultimately reintegrate into the community.  Piquette Square offers mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, on-site job training, computer labs, educational programs and other support services to help the veterans develop healthy and independent living skills.

The complex opened in July 2010 and is a mixed-use development containing retail and community services for residents.  Project Based HUD VASH vouchers are  an important piece of the ongoing funding and services.

Right here in DC, federal, local and community collaboration has resulted in quick and stable housing for the most vulnerable Veterans in the District. Through this interagency collaboration, Veterans receiving a HUD VASH voucher have been able to get in housing on average in 2 weeks as opposed to over the 100 days it takes in other communities.

In addition to Detroit and Washington DC, other cities that are implementing the key principles of Housing First in the HUD-VASH program are Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Denver.

Slide 12
So that I am clear, Housing First is vital to our mission, but Housing First alone won’t get us to our goal of zero homeless Veterans.  As Secretary Shinseki notes, all of our efforts need to be synergized. There is a rich mix of resources available to Veterans in most communities. These resources are found in Veterans specific programs, in homeless programs, and in mainstream services. However for the Veteran at risk of being evicted or living on the streets, he or she can’t find the help needed since the resources aren’t synergized because the programs and services aren’t collaborating.

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Collaboration, as you well know, is hard work. Sometimes it is easier just to say, “I’ll do it myself.” But collaboration is critical for ending homelessness. Here’s why:
People experiencing or most at risk of homelessness are first and foremost people. They are people in a heightened state of need and the situations that threaten them with homelessness are varied and complex. Their challenges are not neatly divided into discreet problems. Getting a Veteran into a decent paying job is tied to transportation is tied to housing situation, is tied to health. Those of you in the audience who work on the front lines of homelessness, you know how much work it takes to navigate the systems to help your clients get what they need. Better that these systems work together on behalf of your clients.

At the federal level, you can see the progress we have made on collaborating and breaking down silos across the government by just looking at this morning’s agenda. We have two Cabinet Secretaries, an assistant secretary, and a representative from the White House.
By testing models of local and federal collaboration on behalf of Veterans, the lessons learned can be applied in other communities. As you heard earlier from Secretary Donovan and will hear later from Secretary Shinseki this type of collaboration has increased the utilization of HUD-VASH vouchers. HUD-VASH has become as strong as ever and I would like to recognize the efforts by those in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Grand Junction, and Seattle who are some of the top performers in VASH.

This federal interagency collaboration is only one piece of the puzzle. We are asking communities across the country to be active partners -- with one another and with us as we implement Opening Doors.

This involves interagency collaboration at the federal regional level, state level, and in local communities. I can’t stress it enough, collaborating at the local level is absolutely vital. This involves bringing all of the key players to the table – Ten Year Plan leaders and State Interagency councils, VA staff, public housing authorities, state and local officials, service providers, the faith based community, philanthropy and housing developers and property managers.

VA Medical Centers and local Continuum of Cares get together and share your plans. Coordinate your activities. Over the last year, we have seen this type of successful collective engagement in cities such as Seattle and Los Angeles

Slide 14

Our friends at Common Ground and the 100,000 Homes Campaign are making significant inroads across the nation to get the most vulnerable men and women off the streets and into stable housing. The Campaign has had a special focus on Veterans.  The model is simple:

  1. Create a local team of volunteers and professionals
  2. Clarify the need – get real time and first person information
  3. Line up the housing and services resources to meet the specific needs
  4. Move folks from the streets into their own apartment home
  5. Provide support to help them stay housed

100,000 Homes is now active in 84 communities.  If your community isn’t yet on board, we urge you to find out more.

SLIDE 15
We all understand that we can’t do this alone. Preventing and ending homelessness is an “all hands on deck” objective.  Last year at this conference, I posed a set of questions specific to you as providers of services to homeless Veterans and their families. I’ve come back to see if we have made progress.

First we’ll talk about working in local communities then we’ll talk about working in your agencies and programs.
Can I see a show of hands whether you can answer yes to the following questions?

  • Did your community get a better count of homeless Veterans during the January 2011 PIT Count?
  • Is your community rapidly returning more homeless Veterans to housing?
  • Are Veterans who have been homeless the longest prioritized for housing and services?
  • Do you participate in your community’s Continuum of Care and Ten Year Planning process?
  • Is outreach occurring in all community emergency shelters to identify homeless Veterans and connect them to the services they need and want?

SLIDE 16
Has your Program

  • Adopted a “readiness to change” model that meet people where they are? 
  • Ensured that homeless Veterans who are most vulnerable are accepted into your programs?
  • Are you tracking your program’s success at getting all those admitted to your program into permanent housing?
  • Do your housing outcomes meet or exceed other programs?

SLIDE 17

  • Is your program connecting Veterans and their family members who aren’t eligible for VA medical care to community providers and Medicaid?
  • Has your program identified the opportunities that health reform and Medicaid expansion presents? Do you have a clear strategy to take advantage of these opportunities?
  • Is your program participating in the local HMIS? Are you using data to improve your programs?

Congratulations to so many of you who have taken steps to adopt best practices and begin synergizing your efforts with other in your community.

Slide 18
Across the country, we are calling on states and communities to join us in implementing Opening Doors.   What does this mean? We are asking your respective states and communities to adopt the four goals of Opening Doors.

Second, commit to incremental targets, measure your progress toward the goals, and implement strategies that will enable you to achieve these goals. As has often been said, “What gets measured gets done.”

Third, we need a sense of urgency.  In this tight budget environment, community-wide and cross-government strategic planning is a pivotal step in ending homelessness.  When the plans are well-crafted and implemented there are better results -- decreases in homelessness and cost savings.  Now is the time to collaborate, invest, and act on strategies that are proven to make an impact. 
And fourth, as you implement strategic plans, keep lines of communication open with public officials at all levels to share what you are doing and learning.   Participate in USICH-sponsored discussions with us. Share solutions and let us know when federal policies are working and when these policies can be improved.

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It comes down to commitment – not just by the President, the Administration, Congress, Governors, local elected officials – it is up to you. We must commit to Housing First practices and by working together we will prevent and end Veterans homelessness. We have made progress since Secretary Shinseki first made this commitment back in November 2009, and we can’t stop now.
Your actions matter. Your perseverance matters. Your quest to be as efficient and effective with the available resources matters. Strong leadership. Effective collaboration. A bold vision and clear goals. Use solid, transparent data to tell the honest story. Focus on what works. Be nimble.

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I look forward to continuing to work with all of you as we finish the mission to get to ZERO by 2015. Thank you for serving our Veterans and thank you for being our partners in this mission!