HHS: Supporting Individuals and Families Experiencing Homelessness

January 13, 2017

In remarks to staff after she came to the Department of Health and Human Services in 2014, Secretary Sylvia Burwell made clear who was “the boss.” She was referring to a photo she received during her time at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation of a little girl named Ndeye. In the picture, Ndeye is contently sitting in a blue bucket and just peeking out over the top. Secretary Burwell related this picture of Ndeye to the individuals and families we serve at HHS. I heard loud and clear that vulnerable people like Ndeye are who we work for — and that every action we take should be for their benefit.

As the 2016 Chair of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Secretary Burwell led the charge in expanding services and supports for individuals and families experiencing homelessness and advancing the goals outlined in Opening Doors . Over the last several months of 2016, I spent one day a week with USICH. I had the opportunity to witness that progress first hand. These successes include strengthening collaboration between health and housing agencies, expanding early care and education for children experiencing homelessness, and building upon guidance to help states connect families experiencing homelessness to stable, permanent housing. Each of those successes was built on a foundation of evidence-based and promising practices as well as a commitment to action.

For example, in December, eight states wrapped up a six-month term of innovative, intensive technical assistance to strengthen and scale supportive housing, a critical tool for preventing and ending chronic homelessness. This work was grounded in research that — time and again — shows that supportive housing is a cost-effective intervention for low-income individuals and families with complex health needs and long histories of homelessness. Those eight states are blazing the trail forward for others looking to improve outcomes and lower costs by better integrating health, behavioral health, and housing systems at the state level.

Another group of trailblazers emerged in the form of three communities — Austin, Cleveland, and Los Angeles — that set out to catalyze action toward ending youth homelessness, with the partnership of A Way Home America, the Rapid Results Institute, and philanthropic groups, along with key federal agencies, including HHS.

Over the last few years, we’ve also made great progress at HHS toward meeting the needs of families and young children who are unstably housed or experiencing homelessness. Recognizing the greater risk for developmental delays and chronic health conditions among children and the challenges facing low-income families, HHS, HUD, and the Department of Education released a Joint Policy Statement on Meeting the Needs of Families with Young Children Experiencing and at Risk of Homelessness. This statement maps out the opportunities and tools communities can use to ensure the needs of those families are met and their risks mitigated. This statement is in addition to the tremendous work that’s been done to ensure that quality early education services are leveraged to provide stability for children through Head Start and the Child Care and Development Fund.

To be detailed with USICH was both educational and motivational. USICH demonstrated to me what it takes to effectively coordinate homelessness programs. It’s that coordination that has helped reduce overall homelessness by 14% nationwide and reduce Veteran homelessness by 47% since 2010. Results like that are not easily earned, it takes day-to-day dedication at all levels of government and the private sector. Now, more than ever, I believe there is a continual and sustained effort to reduce and end homelessness. Secretary Burwell helped set that stage for action by her focus and strategic thinking.

My time at USICH has reinforced to me that more can be done when we keep our focus on what’s important and hone our objectives to see the goals of Opening Doors all the way through the finish line and beyond.  So in the fight to end homelessness across America, what are you focused on every day?  Who is your boss?

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