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Executive Director Barbara Poppe at the National Alliance to End Homelessness Winter Conference in New Orleans, LA

In this speech, USICH Executive Director Barbara Poppe discusses USICH's accomplishments, the challenges ahead, and where we all need to focus our attention. 



Thank you, Nan [Roman], for your kind remarks and your continued excellence in leading the Alliance.

It’s an honor to precede Bryan Samuels, who was such a great partner at ACYF. I’m grateful for his leadership, which was critical for USICH to craft an interagency approach to youth homelessness, create the Youth Framework, and amend the Opening Doors plan to better address the needs of youth and young adults. We’re delighted to continue our partnership in his new role at Chapin Hall.

It’s also great to be among so many friends and allies in the work to address and end homelessness. You inspire and encourage me. Thank you!

One thing I’ve learned is that it is always a good idea to do what Nan suggests. So I’m going to do just that and focus my remarks on:

  • The accomplishments of USICH in this Administration
  • The challenges ahead, and
  • Where we all need to focus our attention

Context of USICH and the Nation:  2009

As President Obama took office, I was very energized and looking forward to the possibilities of a new administration. Despite the difficult time we were experiencing in Columbus – with an escalating number of foreclosures, soaring unemployment, and an uncertain economy – I was still very hopeful that this administration could bring positive change.

I was ecstatic when Shaun Donovan was announced as the HUD Secretary. He was highly regarded and had always been committed to the expansion of affordable housing. He had a great track record of making permanent supportive housing a critical piece of New York City’s work to end chronic homelessness.

When the President and Congress included HPRP in the Recovery Act, I think everyone in this room will agree that we knew this administration was going to mean business when it came to scaling up housing-focused solutions to homelessness.

I was also overjoyed when the HEARTH Act passed Congress after a 10 year battle that was largely advocates fighting amongst ourselves about the definition of homelessness.

The HEARTH Act signaled the promise of being able to work together across constituencies to modernize HUD’s homelessness assistance programs—aligning them with the best practices and innovations that had been developed in communities across the country.

Little did I know in the early days of this administration, that my personal and family life would be changed forever. It’s been quite the ride for someone with no prior government experience. It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t really know what I was getting into.

I joined USICH in November, 2009. Working on a six-month deadline, we sprinted to deliver a high-quality, comprehensive, and inclusive response to the congressional and presidential call for a Federal strategic plan to end homelessness.

2010 – Developing and Launching Opening Doors

Today, as in 2010, USICH is chaired by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, and is comprised of 19 federal agencies with the purpose of coordinating the Federal response to homelessness.

Beginning in January 2010, USICH held regional stakeholder meetings, organized Federal working groups focused on specific populations, solicited public comment through an interactive website, and engaged experts from across the country to develop an action plan to solve homelessness for Veterans, adults, families, youth, and children.

All told, over 9,000 people participated in the development of the Plan. The breadth of ideas as well as the clarity and concurrence around key themes was remarkable.

On that historic day in June 2010 when Opening Doors was launched at the White House, I joined four Cabinet Secretaries to announce the first ever comprehensive Federal plan to end homelessness. In my opening remarks, I recalled President Obama who said that “it is simply unacceptable for individuals, children, families, and our nation’s Veterans to be faced with homelessness in this country.”

Onward to Implementation

Immediately following the launch of the Plan we tackled all 52 strategies within the Federal government, across our 19 agencies, and with partners across the country as well.  (Jennifer Ho, now at HUD, and Anthony Love, now with the VA, were both deputy directors at USICH at that time. They are here today and can back me up on that).

We were, and still are, grateful to everyone in this room who has embraced the Plan and who has helped to execute the strategies of Opening Doors at the national, State, and local level.

That day at the White House, I set forth our intentions for execution of the Plan. Today, I ask you to assess whether we have achieved them.

I said then:

  • “We need Federal leadership to highlight goals and timeframes”.
  • “This is not just a Federal issue. To meet these goals, States, local governments, and the private, non-profit, and philanthropic sectors must be part of the solution. “
  • “There is not a one-size-fits-all plan. We recognize the importance of taking into account local conditions when applying this strategy at the local and State levels.”
  • “Local, State, and Federal governments cannot afford to invest in anything but the most evidence-based, cost-effective strategies.”
  • “We recognize that the best ideas to end homelessness are found outside of Washington.”

I hope your reflection is that we have, together, been true to our intentions.

So what’s been the impact?

Over the last three years (since the launch of Opening Doors), overall homelessness is down by six percent, family homelessness by eight percent, chronic homelessness by 16 percent, and homelessness among Veterans by 24 percent. These aren’t just numbers; these represent real people’s lives impacted by your collective action.

But beyond the numbers and the launch of the Plan, what’s been the impact?

To help me prepare a thoughtful response to Nan’s charge, I enlisted help from the collection of committed, talented, and resourceful individuals who are part of today’s USICH team. The first question I posed was “beyond the launch of Opening Doors, what achievement by USICH has proved the most impactful during our administration? Several staff noted the overall shift in how mainstream programs and services are leveraged to create access for people experiencing homelessness, including:

  • HUD’s guidance to and the engagement of PHAs (where ending homelessness is increasingly becoming central rather than peripheral to their work),
  • HHS’ TANF guidance on rapid re-housing,
  • Medicaid as a payer of services in permanent supportive housing, and,
  • HUD’s multifamily housing preference.

And this progress is not isolated to one program; the overall notion that mainstream programs should, and can, have a specialized focus on homelessness has become an accepted truth. Perhaps more internal to the Federal government is how we’ve transformed the way in which agencies work together and with external partners in trusting relationships.

By using participatory leadership practices to guide our work, frame and re-frame problems, and create effective strategies to combatting immediate and long-term issues, agencies are better able to collaborate with each other and consider solutions that before were out of reach. A good example is the newly released shared definition of rapid re- housing designed in a partnership with the Alliance, HUD, VA, and other Federal agencies.

Our mastery of data intelligence has advanced major federal policy shifts that played out at a community level in system change, program re-design, and budget reprioritization. Nowhere is this truer than the implementation of Housing First in the HUD-VASH program. In 2009, utilization rates and the time to lease-up vouchers were unacceptable to HUD, VA, and also to Congress.

Since then, VA has adopted a Housing First approach and joined forces with HUD, USICH, Community Solutions, and the Rapid Results Institute. The results are remarkable. Targeting of VASH to chronically homeless Veterans is up from less than half to nearly 70 percent of all admissions, with vulnerable families and single adults accounting for the balance.

VA medical centers working with PHAs and CoCs have increased utilization and reduced time from homelessness to housing stability.
Congress did its part and fully funded the VASH program in an era when examples of bipartisanship are difficult to point out.
Most impressive, as I noted, the number of Veterans counted as homeless during the annual PIT count has decreased by 24 percent over the last three years.

The second question I posed to my talented team was, “beyond the fiscal uncertainty of the Federal budget, what is the one challenge you worry the most about?”

Here’s what I heard:

  • I worry that success or failure of Opening Doors will be judged solely by whether people will continue to experience homelessness, ever, even if briefly.
  • I worry that the larger accomplishment of transforming homeless services to a crisis response system that prevents homelessness, or rapidly returns people to stable housing, might be lost in the headlines.
  • Another said: I worry that that rapid re-housing will not get traction and will not become institutionalized as standard practice due to ongoing resistance among local policy makers and provider agencies.

For me, personally, I worry that there will be a next generation of homeless youth if we don’t have the courage to make the changes in policies and programs they need, and if we don’t fight for the resources necessary to scale up the interventions specific to the needs of youth.

Finally, I worry that there will continue to be lack of bipartisan political support for a comprehensive national affordable housing policy, and that we won’t stay united to fight for the affordable housing resources we need.

Nan’s third question was, “What advice would you give the audience?”

  • Keep the families, the youth, the Veterans, the single adults and couples at the center of your work. It’s about them. It’s not about you, your agency, or your ego.
  • Look up and see the bigger picture, how can you join with others for better policy and more resources?
  • K.I.S.S. – keep it simple. We won’t win the hearts and minds of the American public, nor our elected leaders, if we can’t tell the simple story of why and how it’s possible to end homelessness.
  • Change is hard. Change requires resilience. Resilience is about dynamic response. Let go of the status quo.
  • YOLO – you only live once so make it count. Don’t bicker over small things, join forces and make a big difference.  And enjoy and support each other along the way.

Onward to the Next Chapter

Yesterday, Laura Zeilinger was announced as the next Executive Director of USICH.

Laura is the epitome of a dedicated and effective public servant. Her commitment to ending homelessness is absolute. And the urgency and focus to which she approaches each day, each task, and each opportunity to expand our work and make a difference in the lives of people who are looking for stability is so powerful you can’t help but follow her.

Laura believes in partnership, collaboration, setting goals, and reaching them. Over the past three years Laura has helped USICH become a better partner, a better collaborator, and a better supporter of our communities and the work of the Council. I am proud of the work we’ve accomplished together.

She, along with the extremely talented USICH staff, is focused on working with you in the right way, on helping you reach your goal to end homelessness in your community and across this nation. She has a high expectation for the work of USICH—and for the work we’ll do together.

Let’s meet that expectation. Let’s make my list of “worries” obsolete by acting together. In the words of my favorite modern prophet Bono, “there is no them –only us”.

Onward! Together, we can make it possible for all of us to have a safe, stable, and affordable place to call home. Let’s end homelessness.

Thank you.