Everyone Deserves a Place to Be Home: It’s About Justice

As I step down from USICH, I want to share some reflections on what I believe we have achieved in our fight to end homelessness and offer some personal thoughts on continuing this important work.

I fight to end homelessness because the children, youth, families, and adults who have been denied the stability of a place to be home are human beings—the same as you and me. They are our sisters, brothers, neighbors. Each one of them deserves a place to be home.

Homelessness is among the most extreme injustices in America. I believe unequivocally that it is our social and moral obligation to right this wrong.

Context of USICH and the Nation: 2009

As President Obama took office, I was energized and looking forward to the possibilities of a new administration. I was hopeful that, despite the difficulties our nation was facing with an escalating number of foreclosures, soaring unemployment, and an uncertain economy, this administration could bring about positive change.

When the President and Congress included HPRP in the Recovery Act, we — the advocates on homelessness— knew this administration meant business when it came to scaling up housing-focused solutions to end homelessness. I was overjoyed when the HEARTH Act passed Congress after a 10 year battle, which was largely fought amongst ourselves— the advocates— over 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.

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.

Developing and Launching Opening Doors: 2010

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.

Opening Doors was launched at the White House on June 22, 2010. It was an historic day for our cause. I joined four Cabinet Secretaries to announce the first ever comprehensive Federal plan to end homelessness at a White House event attended by 200 leaders within DC and from across the country. In my opening remarks, I echoed the vision of President Obama who said, “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 began to implement all 52 strategies within the Federal government, across our 19 agencies, and with partners across the country. We were, and still are, grateful to everyone who embraces Opening Doors and helps to execute its strategies at the national, State, and local level.

So what’s been the impact?

Since the launch of Opening Doors, we’ve reduced overall homelessness by six percent, family homelessness by eight percent, chronic homelessness by 16 percent, and homelessness among Veterans by an amazing 24 percent. These aren’t just numbers; these represent real people who now have a home—thanks in large part to our collective action.

Together, we’ve shifted the way 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. 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.

We’ve transformed the way Federal agencies work together and with external partners. By using participatory leadership practices to guide our work, framing and re-framing problems, and creating effective strategies to combating immediate and long-term issues, agencies are collaborating with each other in unprecedented ways and considering solutions that before were out of reach. Take, for example, the newly released shared definition of rapid re- housing, designed in partnership with the National Alliance to End Homelessness, HUD, VA, and other Federal agencies.

Through our mastery of data intelligence, we advanced major Federal policy shifts that have 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 Congress. Since then, VA has adopted a Housing First approach and joined forces with HUD, USICH, Community Solutions, and the Rapid Results Institute to shift action at the local level. The results are remarkable.

Three concepts that have worked for me:

Common ground beats being “right”

  • YOLO. You only live once so make it count. Don’t bicker over small things; join forces and make a big difference. Enjoy and support each other along the way.
  • If it’s broken (you’re not getting the results you want), why not try something new? If you can tap the passion of people, miracles are possible; especially if you don’t worry who gets the credit.

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Frederick Douglas


"There is no them –only us.


People solve problems by working together

  • Homelessness is a policy choice; we can move the political will and the policies to ensure everyone has a place to call home if we mobilize and demand accountability.
  • Look up and see the bigger picture. How can you join with others for better policy and more resources?
  • Change is hard. Change requires resilience, and resilience is about dynamic response. Let go of the status quo.

The best solutions keep the family, youth, child, Veteran, adult at the center

  • 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 organization, or your ego.
  • 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.

Onward to the Next Chapter

Laura Zeilinger, the next Executive Director of USICH, is the epitome of a dedicated and effective public servant. Her commitment to ending homelessness is absolute. 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. We’ve shown it’s possible. We now need to make it happen everywhere.