‘Hope Is a Choice’: USICH Director Delivers Closing Remarks at NAEH Conference on Ending Homelessness

July 19, 2023
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USICH Executive Director Jeff Olivet delivered closing remarks today during the 2023 National Conference on Ending Homelessness hosted by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

His speech touched on the growing challenges of eviction and criminalization, the federal strategic plan, the ALL INside Initiative, the president's budget, and why “despite the challenges ahead, we can and will end homelessness in the United States.”

Read his full prepared remarks below: 

“It has been so good to be with you all over the last three days. There is so much to be hopeful about. This energy will power us all as we go forward from here.

Since I joined USICH a year and a half ago, I’ve had the honor of working with many of you, and I am deeply grateful for our partnership. In traveling the country with our amazing team at USICH—many of whom are here today—we have seen so much to strengthen our belief that, despite the challenges ahead, we can and will end homelessness in the United States. 

We have learned from young people of color at Sisu Youth Services, who are using their experiences of homelessness to shape Oklahoma City’s homelessness response, and we have walked with the staff of the Taimon Booton Navigation Center as they work to end homelessness for trans people in San Francisco. We have seen in Aurora, Colorado, how Providence at the Heights combines supportive housing with trauma-informed design. We have sat with the leaders of the Pu’uhonua O Wai’anae village on Oahu as they are transforming a long-term encampment into a community of dignified homes and deep human connection. And we have met with the staff and residents of Women in Need as they courageously work to address not only the crisis of homelessness for long-time New Yorkers but also the recent arrival of asylum seekers and others who—like so many before them—fled oppression back home only to end up in the streets and shelters of their new country.

In this line of work, success is often invisible to the public eye, and heartbreak is an everyday experience.

Many of the challenges we face are growing. Rents are rising, and evictions are increasing. Millions are struggling, and many are falling into homelessness for the very first time. The sight of tents and people sleeping on sidewalks has become increasingly common—and so has deadly violence against people without homes. Let us take a moment to remember Jordan Neely, who was choked to death in New York in May, Scott Bryan, who was beaten to death four weeks ago in Kalispell, Montana, and so many others who have lost their lives while suffering the trauma of homelessness.

Yet it is not enough to remember the dead. We here in this room—and our partners back home—are also fighting like hell for the living. We must continue to combat laws that criminalize homelessness, and we must continue to fight dangerous, scapegoating narratives that dehumanize and blame. History teaches us that hateful words repeated over and over eventually sink in and increase the chances of people being sprayed with a hose while sitting on the sidewalk or killed while begging for help on a subway car.

The real solutions to this crisis take time and investment, patience and persistence. We must continue our work to scale up the housing and services that we know are effective. We must continue to invest in mental health care, substance use treatment, and other wraparound supports—and we must continue to believe that recovery is possible. We must continue to push back on the rhetoric that Housing First doesn’t work. Such arguments are politically cynical, intellectually lazy, and harmful to programs that help people exit homelessness.

The work you do helps more than 2,500 people move off the streets, out of shelters, and into homes every single day. Every day, you prove wrong the cynics who say that what you are doing doesn’t work or that it is impossible to end homelessness.

So, where do we go from here?

We can’t make progress until we interrupt the cycle where as soon as one family is housed, another loses their home. We have to do more to prevent homelessness before it happens. I have come to believe that no one else is going to step up to prevent homelessness. It’s got to be us, and it’s got to be now. No one else is going to carry the prevention torch. This means accelerating development of new affordable housing. It means collaborating with and holding accountable other systems like child welfare, jails and prisons, hospitals, and behavioral health, so they never discharge anyone into homelessness.

Prevention will require new investments and new partnerships. We need public will and private money. And we need our best creative thinking—like that of Destination Home in Santa Clara, California—which has shown empirically that homelessness prevention works. And real, sustainable prevention will require us as a nation to uproot the structural racism that drives high rates of homelessness among people of color.

The Biden-Harris administration is with you in this work. Last year alone, USICH, HUD, and VA partnered with more than 100 communities to help 140,000 people escape homelessness. And as my friend Tiffany Duvernay-Smith from Los Angeles says, “This is not data. These are people.”

The American Rescue Plan invested $26 billion in new emergency housing vouchers and emergency rental assistance. Our federal strategic plan, All In, lays out a roadmap for accelerating progress. As part of the plan, HUD is investing half a billion dollars in first-of-its-kind funding for 62 communities to address unsheltered and rural homelessness. And earlier this summer, the White House and USICH launched the ALL INside Initiative to help unsheltered people in targeted communities move off the streets and into homes.

We make mistakes. We can and will do more to listen to people who have experienced homelessness—especially those living in encampments here in DC and across the country as they tell us what they need. We will do more to support communities to address encampments humanely and effectively. That means getting people into housing, not just sweeping away their tents and hoping homelessness disappears. While there will be missteps, I promise we will learn fast and correct quickly.

And we will continue to expand our work. For the first time ever, HUD is investing more than $3 billion in Continuum of Care grants, and President Biden has proposed a guaranteed housing voucher for every extremely low-income veteran and young person aging out of foster care.

The president’s 2024 budget calls for $10.3 billion for targeted homelessness assistance, a 90% increase for DOJ’s Transitional Housing Assistance Grants to Victims of Sexual Assault, a $28 billion expansion of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, and a 64% increase for HHS’s PATH program.

When you go to the Hill today, tell your Congressional delegation to support the president’s budget. Help them understand that homelessness is our collective responsibility—not a political football. Help them understand why housing—not handcuffs—solves homelessness, and help them understand that homelessness is not only a policy choice, but also a moral one. 

Hope, too, is a choice. Every day, for each one of us.

I recently met an older woman—Grace—who had lost her home after her partner died and she could no longer afford the rent. She was living in a tent under a bridge with her dog. With few options, this was where she felt safest. She was on the verge of losing hope, but through her own strength and the support of an amazing outreach team, she connected with housing and support and now has a place of her own. That’s what gives me hope.

You could be anywhere in the world today, but you chose to be here. Three years ago, our spirit dimmed as the pandemic defined an era of loss and isolation. Yet we have risen up, we have come back together, and our stubborn dedication is here for all to see.

So, do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. Thank you for everything you do. We are in this together.”

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Photo Credit: NAEH 

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