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Executive Director Poppe: Keynote at Housing Colorado Conference

10/12/11 Vail, Colorado

Good afternoon. It is wonderful to be back in Colorado. This is my third visit to the state since taking my position in Washington. I’ve had the chance to see and tour some of the great housing developed in Denver. I’ve met with the Boulder Housing Partners, and also had the chance to meet with former First Lady Jeannie Ritter when she hosted the Colorado Interagency Council on Homelessness last year. I’ve been very impressed by the innovative work happening across the state. Denver, Boulder, and other Colorado communities serve as national models – thank you for your great work.  Yet with all that’s being done, I think you’ll agree that there is still much more for all of us to do.

I would like to congratulate Nancy Engelken and her staff at Housing Colorado for putting together an exceptional conference. Kudos also to Housing Colorado for developing a statewide education campaign to make the economic case for effective affordable housing policy. As everyone will agree, broadening support should generate strong community acceptance and  help avoid and manage NIMBY.  Now more than ever, we need ordinary citizens to value the importance of affordable housing as integral to the fabric of healthy and economically sound communities.

I also want to recognize a few Colorado leaders who have contributed to the national efforts to end homelessness – these include John Parvensky from the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, Governor Hickenlooper’s point people on homelessness Public Policy Director Jamie van Leeuwen, Randle Loeb and the Peoples’ Leadership Council and Gary Sanford the Director of the Colorado Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Since 1983, I have been involved in the movement to end homelessness – it is my work and my passion.  It is a movement that seeks to ensure that all people have a right to safe and affordable housing.  Too often, this basic human need – the need for a place to call home – is not met.  

I have met thousands of persons – men, women, and children -- who have directly experienced homelessness.  For many, it’s a simple economic situation – they don’t earn enough to pay the rent. For others they have also experienced racism, sexism, classism, and prejudices related to their diseases of AIDS/HIV, domestic violence, mental illness, alcoholism and addiction.  For some they have the further burden of a past criminal record.  Each of them deserves a home.

I have seen first hand the difference that having a place to call home – one that is safe, affordable, however modest, is a foundation for making one’s way in the world. The most gratifying days of my work in Columbus were to talk with men, women, youth, and children who’d moved from the streets and shelters into their own apartment. They always looked visibly better, healthier, and more hopeful. I know that studies back up this obvious and outward sign of health.

I remember bringing a Columbus City Council member to tour a permanent supportive housing community on the day after it opened. I introduced him to Denise – a new tenant with just a few days of sobriety.  We asked her what was the best thing about moving in. She said, “I woke up last night and was hungry. I laid in bed then remembered that I was in my own place and could get up since I wasn’t in a shelter and get something to eat. I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at 4 a.m. and I was so happy”. We were struck by the simplicity of her happiness – the ability  to meet her basic needs for food and shelter, and her ability to be in control of her life – not ruled by shelter curfews, kitchen hours, and other regulations. I keep a photo of Denise, the council member, her case manager and me on my desk to remind me that housing is the best solution to homelessness and that it matters to real people.

It is their faces, their courage, and their struggles that inspire me to continue as their advocate. And that was what brought me to my current role as executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.

The mission of the Council is to coordinate the Federal response to homelessness and to create a national partnership at every level of government and with the private sector to reduce and end homelessness in the nation while maximizing the effectiveness of the Federal Government in contributing to the end of homelessness.  Department of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis is the current chair of the Council, which also includes 18 other Federal agencies.
Before starting my position in Washington, DC, I worked in Columbus, Ohio as executive director of the Community Shelter Board, a public-private nonprofit committed to ending homelessness. Learning from our peers across the country, including Denver, we developed local practices to divert families from shelter to community services thus avoiding homelessness altogether as well as creating alternatives to shelter through quick placement in their own apartments and providing transitional services to stabilize them in their new homes. 

We also pioneered development of permanent supportive housing as a solution to long term homelessness. Using Housing First practices we were able to take men and women directly from the streets into their own apartments without requiring periods of sustained treatment as a pre requisite to housing. We were able to document what was working because we used community wide data to track progress and modify our approaches as needed.

The foundation of our work was the creation of a community strategic plan – Rebuilding Lives that was launched in 1997.  We collaborated across all sectors – nonprofit, business, government, faith, advocates and community around what we call the “moral foundation”.  We believed that “homelessness was unacceptable in our community, even for one night”.

Today, I will discuss the progress we have made in ending homelessness over the last decade, I’ll touch on Opening Doors, the first ever federal comprehensive plan to prevent and end homelessness and discuss how the State of Colorado and many of you here today  can become more engaged and align your efforts to build upon best practices.

Homelessness and Progress over the Last Decade

Homelessness is a complex and complicated issue. On any single night in our country, there are approximately 650,000 individuals, 15,000 here in Colorado, without safe and stable housing.  One in 500 Americans and one in 67 Americans living below the poverty line is in a shelter or on the street every night. More than one third are persons in families.

Over 76,000 are our nation’s veterans. Nearly 13,000 of our young service members returning from Afghanistan and  Iraq lived on the streets or in homeless shelters last year. And more Vietnam-era veterans are homeless today than troops who died during the war itself. That is a national shame. Yet, over the last few years with bipartisan support we have made progress mainly through a new program called HUD-VASH. Since 2008, Colorado has received 715 VASH vouchers for its Veterans and has one of the highest lease-up rates in the nation.

Over the past decade, communities across the nation have made remarkable progress in reducing chronic or long-term homelessness. Yet, chronic homelessness annually affects over 110,000 adults and families.  Individuals are considered chronically homeless if they have a disabling condition and are either homeless continuously for one year or more or have experienced four or more bouts of homelessness in the last three years. Six out of 10 chronically homeless adults are living on the street, and most suffer from acute and debilitating health problems exacerbated without a roof over their head.
Chronic homelessness incurs high costs for individuals and society as these individuals are frequent users of public services. Health care expenses are the most common costs due to frequent and avoidable inpatient hospitalizations, emergency room visits, sobering centers, and nursing homes. Other high costs are associated with the criminal justice system. Consequently, chronic homelessness can cause a major strain on local community budgets.

The leading solution to ending chronic homelessness is and has been the development of permanent supportive housing - affordable rental housing coupled with supportive services that target the specific needs of an individual or family.

Across the country, the number of chronically ill, long-term homeless individuals has been reduced by over one-third in the last six years due to the increase in the number of permanent supportive housing units targeted to this population and using a Housing First approach. In addition, collaboration between all sectors has driven this success:  the banking and lending sector specifically play a pivotal role in developing and financing these units to help end chronic homelessness.

Here in Colorado, you have discovered that strategic partnerships shaped by community strategic plans that promote efficient outcomes have yielded positive results. Such communities include Denver, Boulder County, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, and Longmont. These strategic partnerships need representation from all key stakeholders involved, those include public housing authorities, county/city governments, housing developers, finance institutions, as well as nonprofit and advocacy organizations.

Opening Doors

So now, let me tell you what the Obama administration has done about homelessness. Soon after the inauguration, President Obama and HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan took decisive action through the Recovery Act by investing $1.5 billion in the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, otherwise known as HPRP. Last month, I joined Secretary Donovan to celebrate the milestone that the Recovery Act has helped save one million people from homelessness. That's one million people who won't be forced to sleep on our nation's streets, in their cars or doubled up at a relative's house.

Then in June of last year, with the help of stakeholders from across the United States, including some of you in the audience, we launched Opening Doors at a White House event headlined by four cabinet secretaries – HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, Labor Secretary Solis, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, as well the head of the Domestic Policy Council Melody Barnes. 
Could I see a show of hands of those who have had a chance to read this Plan?  Thank you! You join over 300,000 others who have downloaded the plan on our website.

Opening Doors is based on the vision that no one should experience homelessness. No one should be without a safe, stable place to call home. This vision was articulated by President Obama when he stated that “it is simply unacceptable for individuals, children, families and our nation’s Veterans to be faced with homelessness in this country.”

Opening Doors represents a dramatic shift in our approach.  Opening Doors is based on the idea that solving homelessness requires that people access MAINSTREAM resources effectively and sufficiently to meet their needs and avoid homelessness. Mainstream programs are designed for people regardless of their housing status, programs like Medicaid, Social Security, food assistance programs, employment, and education.

Opening Doors has four bold goals:

  • First, we will finish the job of ending chronic homelessness by 2015.
  • Second, as Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has championed, we will prevent and end homelessness for America’s Veterans and their families by 2015.
  • Third, we will prevent and end homelessness for families, youth, and children by 2020.
  • Fourth and finally, Opening Doors sets a path of ending all types of homelessness.

Opening Doors outlines 10 objectives and 52 strategies. As I learned in Ohio and have seen in everywhere I’ve visited, there is not a “one-size-fits all” plan. We are considering regional opportunities and challenges when acting with our community partners at local and state levels. I understand Colorado has unique challenges with rural, resort, suburban, and metro community needs and opportunities.

Despite the economic challenges, progress in implementing strategic plans – at the local level, in states, and here in the federal government— has occurred across the United States. While it is too soon to tell the full impact of Opening Doors, evidence is emerging that local and state efforts supported by federal resources operating in partnership with the private and nonprofit sectors, have made a significant difference.  There is widespread agreement that by dedicating resources and focusing on implementing the Plan, we will reduce and ultimately end homelessness in America.

Over the last 16 months, there has been unprecedented collaboration among federal agencies—with one another, and with state and local governments and nonprofits—in our efforts to implement the plan. The federal government is laying the groundwork for future successes through better collaboration, better data collection, better use of mainstream resources, and engaging states and local communities in the plan’s goals and strategies.

The bold and measurable goals in Opening Doors are meant to prompt efforts to prevent and end homelessness. For the first time, the federal government is measuring progress against clear numerical targets.

Importance of Housing

Now that you have heard what we have been up to in Washington, many of you might wonder where you fit in with all of this. Let me first address the underlying reason for the growth in homelessness. Too many Americans cannot afford a safe place to call home. More than 8 million renters pay more than half of their income yet are extremely low income. There has been a 13 percent increase in extremely low income renter households over the last decade, while the number of units affordable to this population decreased by 14 percent.

With wages going down and the cost of housing going up, low income earners are in a dire situation than the rest of the populous. The shares of extremely low income and very low income renters who are paying over 30 percent of their income on housing costs, living in substandard housing, or living in an overcrowded unit are higher nationally and in nearly every state now than they were in 2000.
Not only is homelessness a tragic and troubling issue, it is expensive. The cost of homelessness - not only in the dollars we spend as taxpayers, but also in the terrible price individuals and families experiencing homelessness pay when we spend those dollars in a disjointed, fragmented way.

For many persons living in poverty, the lack of stable housing leads to costly cycling through crisis and institutional care. In addition, health care costs are the leading cause of personal bankruptcies - with almost half of all foreclosures caused in part by financial issues stemming from medical costs. We are seeing families falling into homelessness whose incomes have plummeted as a result of the recession - through foreclosures, evictions, layoffs, or health care costs. For most people, the threat of homelessness stems from the gap between their current income and the cost of housing. People are extremely poor at the time they become homeless. More affordable housing is needed for people with extremely low incomes who are most at risk of homelessness.

Housing needs to be affordable to those households with the lowest incomes who are most at risk of homelessness. The households most vulnerable to homelessness are those from no income up to 30 percent of Area Median Income. As you know, housing is affordable if the cost is no more than 30 percent of the monthly household income.

Opening Doors lays out a number of strategies for us to combat this growing need for affordable housing.

We need additional rental housing subsidies through federal, state, local, and private resources to individuals and families experiencing or most at risk of homelessness. The rent subsidies should be structured so that households pay no more than 30 percent of their income for housing.

We need to expand the supply of affordable rental homes where they are most needed. In order to do this, we are urging state and local governments to focus rental assistance and low-cost capital for new construction and rehabilitation of housing for individuals and families experiencing or most at risk of homelessness. We are encouraging State Housing Finance Agencies to give preference in the awarding of Low Income Housing Tax Credits to increase investments for housing targeted to people experiencing or most at risk of homelessness. And for Public Housing Agencies, you can make project-based vouchers available to housing developers who target projects to extremely low income households.

Another tool in our arsenal is rapid re-housing. The solution uses short-term strategies to help families quickly move out of homelessness and into permanent housing. These may include providing supportive services to help a household quickly secure housing, providing short-term financial and rental assistance, and addressing barriers to long-term housing stability.

As I mentioned earlier, HPRP provided communities a significant infusion of dollars to implement this solution. Now that the HPRP dollars are drying up, we are asking communities to become creative with their crisis response systems and to utilize federal funding streams through the Emergency Solutions Grant from HUD and the Supportive Services for Veterans Families program from the VA.

For some who experience homelessness, their needs are greater than can be met through rapid re-housing and affordable housing strategies.

To solve chronic homelessness, we see permanent supportive housing as the solution. It is a type of specialized affordable rental housing where rents are always subsidized to ensure affordability for tenants who typically will have extremely low incomes. It is reserved only for households with significant disabling conditions who require integrated supportive services to maintain housing stability. While many families and single households might benefit from supportive housing, in these tight economic times, we need to target this precious resource only to households that have experienced chronic homelessness or are at high risk of becoming chronically homeless.

Here in Colorado, we have seen a 13 percent increase in permanent supportive housing over just the last three years. This is a great start and I know more is in the pipeline.

Supportive housing can be provided through three primary strategies: 1) pairing a rental subsidy with dedicated services; 2) building new or rehabilitated units at a single site and providing a rental subsidy and on-site services; or 3) set-aside units within an affordable housing community and providing a rental subsidy with on-site supportive services. Supportive housing is most cost-effective when it is targeted to people with the most extensive needs, including individuals with mental illness, chemical dependency, HIV/AIDS, and other co-occurring conditions that incur high costs in the public sector. 

The most effective type of supportive housing utilizes the Housing First model which seeks to “screen in” rather than “screen out” individuals with substance abuse and mental illness that may not be eligible to receive housing assistance in other programs. These models move hard to house individuals into permanent housing quickly and can then provide intensive supportive services to help these individuals achieve and maintain housing stability.

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.

For instance, a study in Denver showed that an overall reduction in emergency service costs for chronically homeless individuals with disabilities. The total emergency related costs for the sample group declined by 73 percent, or nearly $600,000 in the 24 months of participation in the Denver Housing First Collaborative program compared with the 24 months prior to entry in the program. The total emergency cost savings averaged $31,545 per participant. 

In addition to saving taxpayers money, the local and national evaluations of the program documented overall improvement in the health status and residential stability of program participants. For these persons who averaged nearly 8 years of homelessness each prior to entering the program, 77 percent of those entering the program continued to be housed in the program when the study concluded. Here are a few more interesting facts:

  • Fifty percent of participants had documented improvements in their health status
  • 43 percent had improved mental health status
  • 15 percent had decreased their substance use
  • And 64 percent had improved their overall quality of life. 
  • Furthermore, the overall quality of life for the community improved as the negative impacts of individuals living and sleeping on the streets were reduced.

Taking Action

So now that I’ve laid out the path to ending homelessness, I’ve come here today to ask Colorado if you’ll be the first state to end homelessness. (Utah and Rhode Island both believe they will be the first).
Across the United States, we are calling on states and communities to join us in implementing Opening Doors.  Last month, USICH announced Opening Doors Across America. We are asking you to join us by doing four things.

I’m encouraging the implementation of local plans and a state plan to align with Opening Doors.  Governor Hickenlooper is a national leader on ending homelessness due to his tremendous commitment while he was the mayor of Denver. I understand that his administration is working to develop the first Colorado strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness that builds upon the local and regional needs within Colorado. We hope that the results will be a Colorado plan that aligns with the goals of Opening Doors. He needs your help to make ending homelessness a reality in Colorado. Can you work to get your local plans aligned too?

Second, commit to incremental targets, measure your progress toward the goals, and implement strategies that will enable you to achieve these goals. What gets measured gets done.   Can you get your community to commit to measuring your progress?

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.  Can you help keep homelessness as an urgent issue that can be solved?

So here’s some things you might want to move on across Colorado:

  • Develop affordable housing targeted to the lowest income households those who earn at or below 15% of Area Media Income.
  • Implement Housing First and Rapid Re-Housing practices broadly across all homeless programs
  • Use Emergency Solutions Grants and Continuum of Care resources to provide Rapid Re-Housing
  • Continue to build a pipeline of  Housing First Permanent supportive housing targeted to chronically homeless individuals and families
  • Collaborate with Public Housing Agencies to identify how families and individuals who are homeless can be prioritized for housing.
  • Get healthcare and human service providers engaged as allies and partners in your work. Get smart on Medicaid. It is truly a game changer. By 2014, Medicaid will cover all households with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level.
  • For instance, the National Church Residences- a national non profit housing development organization - recently hired a Medical Director to meet the needs of seniors, people experiencing homelessness, and people with special needs. They also hired the position to create a business model that accesses Medicaid.
  • Work collaboratively and build relationships to streamline resources and efforts: involve health and human services, housing agencies, VA, education, corrections, law enforcement and the private sector, including business, philanthropy, faith-based and community organizations. Invest state, local, and philanthropic dollars toward strategies aligned with the strategic plan.

And the last part of this call to action is that while 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. We need you to partner with us.  We need all hands on deck to complete the job of ending homelessness.

I want to see Colorado sign on to this initiative and I have faith that you will help us achieve these bold goals we have set out.

While I have the bully pulpit, I have a few more asks of those of you in the audience that will allow Colorado to succeed:

  • Housing Colorado - could you include ending homelessness and affordable housing at less than 30 percent AMI and permanent supportive housing production as a specific advocacy initiative?
  • State leaders - How will you help urban, suburban, and rural communities across Colorado increase housing resources – particularly for homeless youth, families and especially the chronic homeless who are in need of housing with supportive services?
  • Housing providers – how can you facilitate peer-to-peer supports ?  How can you be more inclusive of tenants in planning and implementation?
  • Everyone - How can you ensure that every Veteran in Colorado has a place to call home? -- One thing you could do this week is to participate in the VA’s outreach and awareness event this Friday. The Denver VA Medical Center’s Homeless Program will announce community partner initiatives around Healthcare, Housing, Education/Career Benefits, Veterans Justice and American Indian Partnerships.   Events like this are happening in many cities across the country to bring awareness and support to ending Veterans homelessness by 2015.  If you can, get to Denver and show your support.

Finally, I want to encourage you to engage in state, regional, and local efforts to align resources and streamline access to services for those at-risk or experiencing homelessness. We need to see local and state investment. You can’t just expect dollars to flow from Washington. 

I know that I’m asking a lot, but with Colorado as a national leader in ending homelessness, it would be great to see Colorado to be the first state to end homelessness.

In the end, it comes down to commitment – not just by the President, the Administration, Congress, Governors, local elected officials – it is up to you.

Your actions matter, your perseverance matters, your quest to be as efficient and effective with the available resources matters. Strong leadership. Effective collaboration across sectors and disciplines. A bold vision and clear goals.  Focus on what works, Solid, transparent data to tell the honest story. Nimbleness to respond to changing needs and opportunities. These keys will serve you well in the months ahead. Join us in implementing Opening Doors.

On behalf of the Obama Administration, thank you for the work you do every day to help people get and stay off the streets. And thank you in advance for the hard work that you will do in the coming years to forge new partnerships and collaborations in order to prevent and end homelessness here in Colorado.