Remarks by the First Lady at the National Alliance to End Homelessness Annual Conference
The White House
Office of the First Lady
For Immediate Release
July 31, 2014
The Renaissance Hotel
12:56 P.M. EDT
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you, everyone. (Applause.) Good afternoon. Thank you so much. Well, please, rest yourselves. (Laughter.) Good afternoon.
Let us start by thanking Leon for sharing his story and for everything he’s done for our country. (Applause.) We are so proud of men and women like Leon who are everywhere in this country.
I also want to thank everyone from Friendship Place for lifting up so many veterans like Leon here in D.C. I also want to recognize Nan Roman and everyone here at the National Alliance to End Homelessness for hosting us here at your annual conference.
But most of all, I want to thank all of you -– the leaders who are fighting every day to end homelessness in communities across this country. The work you are doing is so critically important. You are helping folks meet one of their most basic human needs. You’re making sure our communities reflect our shared values of compassion, empathy, and service. And you’re doing the hard work to show that here in America, we take care of our own. (Applause.)
So given your extraordinary contributions, it is disappointing that you often don’t get the support, respect, and appreciation you need to get the job done. (Applause.) Whether you’re running a shelter, or raising money for a community organization, or managing a citywide anti-homelessness campaign, you all are working long hours to keep it all together. You’re fighting each year for every single penny in your budgets. But inevitably the cuts come and it’s up to you to figure out how to salvage what’s left of your programs.
And day after day, as you fight for more resources, you encounter too many folks who don’t take you seriously because they don’t believe that we’ll ever truly be able to solve this problem; or even worse, because they feel like our homeless brothers and sisters have brought these problems on themselves.
Yet, when so many others accept homelessness as a fact of life, you refuse to give up. When they scoff at your idealism, you show them the data and evidence that prove that we can solve this problem. And when they still throw up their hands and walk away from this challenge, you roll up your sleeves and get back to work.
So today, before I say anything else, I just want to say thank you. Thank you. (Applause.)
Thank you for taking that gay teenager whose parents kicked him out of the house. Thank you for connecting that low-income family with resources that keep them from being evicted. And thank you for showing veterans like Leon that the country they served still has their backs.
And that’s actually — yes, thank you. (Applause.) I don’t know if you hear that enough. But it’s veterans like Leon that’s actually what I’d like to focus on my discussion with you today on. I’d like to talk about how we’re serving our veterans in this country, particularly when it comes to the issue of homelessness.
As you know, as First Lady, I’ve been blown away by the stories of courage and selflessness that define our veterans and their families. I have met wounded warriors who have lost legs to an IED, and then fight through recovery to run marathons. I’ve met veterans who have run into sniper fire and explosions to save their friends. Every single time they’re asked, these men and women answer the call and give this country everything they’ve got.
And so when I hear that these folks don’t even have a place to go when it rains, like all of you, I am outraged. And the fact that right now, our country has more than 58,000 homeless veterans, well, that’s a stain on the soul of this nation.
Now, I always try to be very clear that the vast majority of our veterans are tremendously resilient and never experience homelessness. They transition back in good health and good spirits and go on to build successful careers and strong families. But as Americans, the idea that anyone who has worn our country’s uniform spends their nights sleeping on the ground should horrify us. And so it is truly our duty to right this wrong and put an end to veteran homelessness, once and for all.
But that moral and patriotic duty is only part of the reason why ending veteran homelessness is so critical. As we all know, ending homelessness for our veterans can also be a crucial first step — a proof point — to show that we can end homelessness for everyone in this country, too. (Applause.)
Because time and time again, we’ve seen how broader social change can be triggered by our military. In the 1940s, we started the school lunch program, because too many of our young people were too malnourished to serve in the military when they were drafted. During the fight to end segregation, folks were arguing that if our troops could bleed together on the battlefield, well then certainly they could sit next to each other at the movies or a lunch counter. (Applause.) And today on mental health issues, we’re seeing that we can combat stigma and stimulate groundbreaking research by sharing the stories of our brave veterans.
And that kind of progress is possible when it comes to homelessness as well. In fact, in Phoenix and Salt Lake City, they’ve already effectively ended chronic homelessness among their veterans. (Applause.) In New Orleans, they’re on track to end all veteran homelessness within the next six months. (Applause.) And as a nation, we’ve reduced veteran homelessness by 24 percent over the last three years under this administration. (Applause.)
So today, thanks to federal action, local leadership and the hard work of folks like you, we are on the verge of making a major breakthrough on veteran homelessness and a breakthrough that could change the entire conversation about homelessness in this country. So today, it’s more important than ever that we redouble our efforts, that we embrace the most effective strategies to end homelessness among our veterans once and for all.
And that’s what my husband has been doing since the day he took office. When he became President, my husband vowed to put an end to veteran homelessness. And over the past five years, he’s cut through red tape, directed record funding to veteran programs. And together, we’ve made tremendous progress on this issue.
For example, many of you are familiar with the HUD-VASH voucher program. Since 2008, we have housed more than 73,000 veterans using these vouchers. (Applause.) And that’s more than 40 times as many veterans as were housed since the program first began in the ‘90s. And through the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program, last year alone we helped prevent more than 60,000 veterans and their family members from falling into homelessness. And next year, we expect that number to grow to 100,000. (Applause.)
So we are seeing that with enough resources and the right strategies — strategies like housing first, rapid rehousing — we can make huge amounts of progress in a very short period of time. And leaders all across the country are seeing that too. That’s why just last month, I was proud to host an event at the White House where a collection of 85 mayors, governors and county officials signed on to the mayors challenge to end homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015. And that’s a huge deal. It’s a huge deal. (Applause.)
And today, I’m equally proud to announce that in the eight weeks since that event, 97 more city, state, and county leaders have signed on to that challenge. That’s a total of 182 communities –- more than double our original number. (Applause.) We even got Los Angeles on board, and they’ve got — (laughter) — and that’s important because they’ve got more than 6,000 homeless veterans in their city –- far more than any city in this country.
But Mayor Garcetti in Los Angeles and leaders across the country are signing on to this pledge because they’ve seen the data and they know that they can create enough housing for every veteran. And if a veteran does fall into homelessness, they’ll have systems in place to get those vets back into stable housing as quickly as possible. That’s what it’s going to take to end veteran homelessness. And that’s what these 182 communities are committing to do by the end of 2015.
But of course, I know, and these leaders know, and my husband knows that we will never be able to reach that goal without all of you. Yes. (Laughter and applause.) We’re counting on you, because you all are the ones who know your communities inside and out. You know your veterans by name. You know their stories by heart. You know the donors, the congregations, the community groups that you need to get engaged. And perhaps most of all, you know the best ways to implement data-driven, cost-effective solutions that really work on the ground.
For example, after Hurricane Katrina, Volunteers of America of Greater New Orleans realized that their focus on sobriety programming wasn’t as effective as it could be. So they shifted their focus to getting veterans into permanent housing as quickly as possible. And in the last three years, they’ve already helped more than 400 veterans across the state of Louisiana.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes!
MRS. OBAMA: Yes, indeed! (Applause.) Indeed. Nothing like a little competition. (Laughter.) I like that.
Now, down in Phoenix, United Methodist Outreach Ministries realized that providing short-term rental assistance for veterans was far more effective than placing them in temporary shelters. And over the past five years, using this strategy, they’ve helped about 300 veterans get back on their feet. (Applause.)
Those are just some examples of what it’s going to take to solve this problem –- community organizations reaching out person by person, family by family, until we reach all of our veterans and get them into housing. And I want you to know that this administration is going to be with you every step of the way as you implement those best practices. And our Joining Forces initiative is working hard to rally businesses, foundations to step up to support our homeless vets.
And we’re also calling on all Americans to find new ways that they can help folks like you on the ground, whether that’s as volunteers or donors or anything else. Because in the end, as you all know so well, this issue isn’t just about data and budget proposals or long-term plans. In the end, ending veteran homelessness is about people — it’s about connecting people to each other and to the resources they need.
And over the past few months, I’ve had a number of veterans who experienced homelessness that I’ve met, men and women who served this country bravely, but struggled when they came home. One young woman named Jenn couldn’t shake memories from her time in Afghanistan and ended up living out of her car, abusing drugs, and unable to hold a job. An Iraq veteran named Jim was dealing with post-traumatic stress. He’d lose control of his emotions and soon enough, he had to move out of his house and he had nowhere to go.
And then there’s a man named Doran who served in Korea during the Vietnam War. Now, Doran was in and out of homelessness for 30 years –- 30 years –- and he said that it got so bad that folks were throwing change at his feet in the street. But here’s the thing –- each of those veterans also had the strength to ask for help from their community, and organizations in their community responded by getting them into housing and then getting them the counseling and other resources that they needed.
So today, those three veterans are back on their feet, giving back to the communities and the organizations that helped them. Doran is a case manager helping other homeless veterans. (Applause.) Jim manages a 48-bed veterans housing facility. And the young woman, Jenn, Jenn is a nurse who spends her free time now volunteering for organizations that she credited with saving her life. (Applause.) That’s the power of all of you in this room.
You all did that. That’s your work. You all don’t just see statistics. You don’t just see folks sleeping on park benches. You see the potential that lies in every single one of our homeless brothers and sisters. And you work day after day, night after night, to help them bring that potential to life.
Thanks to your work over the years, we’ve made such tremendous progress for our veterans and so many others. And now, we can see the finish line. And if we achieve our goal, if we end homelessness for our veterans, then we’ll show everyone in this country that we can also do it for all those families shuttling from motel to motel, for all those LGBT teens and for every single person experiencing homelessness throughout our country.
That has been this organization’s goal since it formed more than a quarter century ago. And today, we are so close to this major milestone for our veterans. All we have to do is finish the job.
So for you all, here’s an assignment. (Laughter.) If your mayor isn’t signed up yet for the mayors challenge, then light up their phone until they get on board. And if you have any questions on whether or not we can get this done, I want you to just look to the success stories of many of the organizations and communities represented in this room today. Together, you all are showing that if we work hard enough and smart enough, we can end homelessness for our veterans once and for all. And if we do that, we show that eventually we can finish the job for everyone else, too.
So let me end as I began — by saying thank you. Thank you for everything you’ve done. Thank you for everything you’ll do in the months and years ahead to help us reach this goal. I appreciate you as your First Lady. I am grateful to all of you, which is why I’m here. And I will continue to be here with Joining Forces.
So I hope you all have a rip-roaring time at the rest of your conference. (Laughter.) You guys, keep up the great work. God bless. And I’ll come down and shake a few hands.
Thank you. (Applause.)
1:14 P.M. EDT