Our Opportunity to Learn from the Response to Hurricane Harvey

Matthew delivered the following remarks at the Texas Conference on Ending Homelessness in Dallas, TX, on October 4, 2017. (Edited for length and clarity.)

Good afternoon everyone. I am truly honored to be here with all of you today. It’s good to be here in Texas—where my thoughts have been a lot of the time recently. All of our thoughts have been pulled in many directions over the last several weeks—to Florida, to the Caribbean, to Puerto Rico, and this week, to Las Vegas.

On behalf of the whole team at USICH, please know that we’ve also been thinking of everyone—and every community—impacted by Hurricane Harvey, and we’ve been thinking of cities and towns across the state that have been doing all they can to help those who have lost their homes, their jobs, their communities.

As we’ve watched your response to the hurricane, we’ve witnessed the remarkable spirit and powerful unity you have all demonstrated. A spirit through which people of all faiths and races and socioeconomic backgrounds have joined together to help their neighbors in need. You’ve demonstrated how powerful we can be, together, when we recognize our shared humanity and how it unites us across any differences.

To my eyes, you’ve responded to tragedy and challenges with what I think of as patriotism in action—a patriotism grounded in supporting one another, caring for one another, doing what we can to ease each other’s pain. A patriotism grounded in shared sacrifice and creating opportunities for one another. And given what I know about Texas, that response does not surprise me at all.

It doesn’t surprise me because there are so many examples of great work, dedication, and commitment that I can point to from all across the state. I’ll highlight just a few of those examples:

  • Because of your strong commitment to Veterans in this state, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin have now all effectively ended Veteran homelessness. You probably know that all three of those cities rank in the top 11 in the country in terms of population. They are examples of Texas showing the country the scale of collaborative efforts possible in big cities with complex geographies and challenges.
  • Bob Pulster and I were just in Austin, where the partners have launched a new, comprehensive strategic plan to end all homelessness, incorporating best practices and grounded in data and a focus on equity.
  • I have often pointed to Houston as an example of how to include a focus on income and employment at the center of coordinated entry processes.
  • I know that Lubbock has just launched a 100-day challenge to house 45 people experiencing chronic homelessness and can’t wait to hear the outcomes.
  • I also know that Dallas is one of ten cities across the country engaged in the Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities initiative with the Center for Social Innovation, tackling head-on issues of racial inequities.
  • I was also just recently in San Antonio and learned about how they are translating their success on Veterans to other populations.
  • And we’ve been working with community partners in Laredo to learn more about addressing the unique housing needs of Veterans along the border.

And I know there is a lot of other great work that I haven’t had a chance to learn about yet.

Disaster Recovery

And in recent weeks, you’ve also provided us with a case study on how to respond to disasters with purpose, with creativity, with shared responsibility, with strengthened partnerships. The opportunity that I think is in front of us right now is to take the lessons of that response to an urgent crisis and to reinforce and strengthen our response to the on-going, daily crisis of homelessness in our communities.

I know that you can help us seize that opportunity, because the core of what it has taken to respond to a disaster is also at the core of your efforts to end homelessness. There are likely many people in the room much more expert than me in disaster response and recovery, but I’ve been struck by the parallels across the strategies, and know that if we can mobilize the same urgency and purpose to our efforts, the opportunity to succeed seems clear as well.

You’ve helped us witness what is possible.

Prevention

First, as the storm approached, as the crisis threatened, we witnessed the preparations, the efforts to prevent damage when possible and to protect people from experiencing the deepest ravages and impact, if we can. To end all homelessness, we need to give more thought to how we can prevent people from ever experiencing the overwhelming disruption of homelessness, whatever the cause.

We must dig deep into policy decisions on housing and community development strategies, on eviction practices, and the goals and expectations of our safety-net programs. And we must pay close attention to inequities in risk, including how racial biases and discrimination increase risks for people of color.

Crisis Response

But, it is also clear that sometimes our best-laid plans will not be enough to keep everyone out of harm’s way. And as the hurricane raged and the rain fell … and fell … and fell… and as the flood waters rose and rose again, we witnessed how Texans—and folks from other states—responded heroically to rescue people and help them find safety. Rescuers sought to find everyone—and to give everyone a better option. For everyone experiencing homelessness too, we know that the opportunity to find shelter can be critically important to find safety and well-being, to make plans, and to access services and support.

Recovery

But as the storm ebbs, as the immediate threats recede, we recognize that such safety and shelter are not the endpoints—they are starting places. We’ve witnessed how partners have moved quickly into helping people affected by Hurricane Harvey to exit back into places they can call home.

Following a disaster, we instinctively understand that what people most need in order to recover is the security and stability of home, of family, of community. We can do much more to help everyone in our communities and our country understand that what people experiencing homelessness most need and want is the same as what our neighbors who have experienced a disaster need and want.

They need access to housing they can afford in a neighborhood where they want to settle and put down roots, where they can re-establish connections to neighbors, and schools, and faith institutions, and social groups.

They may need financial assistance to help them stabilize. For some, that might just mean help with security deposits or a few months of rent. For others, who find themselves in more challenging situations, that might mean longer term rental assistance or disability benefits.

And they may need help accessing jobs and other opportunities so that they can sustain their new home. And so that they can recognize themselves as contributing members of their communities.

And obviously, that’s not all people may need.

They may need health or mental health care and other services to address the traumas they have experienced. They may need addiction services. They may need support navigating the day-to-day responsibilities of a new place or a new situation. They may need assistance addressing educational needs for themselves and their children. And they may need an attentive eye and a listening ear to help recognize challenges that may not emerge until weeks and months after they return to housing.

But with such supports, people can and do rebuild their lives.

Translating Lessons

At USICH, we’ve spent a lot of the past year thinking and communicating about the work ahead of us all, together. The lessons we’re taking from the response to Hurricane Harvey have put in stark relief some of the issues we need to tackle:

  • How do we broaden our partnerships and deepen our coordination to mobilize all of our strengths, assets, and resources?
  • How do we best prevent people from ever experiencing the risks, crises, and damaging effects of homelessness?
  • How do we strengthen our ability to provide emergency shelter that is not an endpoint, but a way station on a quick path back to permanency and opportunity?
  • How do we most efficiently tailor our responses based upon people’s individualized needs and goals, strengths and challenges?
  • How do we access, create, and sustain enough permanent affordable housing opportunities?

Strengthening the Federal Strategic Plan

We are wrestling with all of these questions – and many more – as we engage with our partners to revise and strengthen the Federal Strategic Plan. One of our core responsibilities in this planning effort is to not lose sight of the essential values and truths that have informed our work together and that have helped to drive the progress we’ve been seeing.

First, we’re going to stay true to the vision of ending homelessness. When Opening Doors was released, we didn’t have the proof that ending homelessness was possible. Now, thanks to communities here in Texas and communities in 26 other states, we’ve proven that we can end Veteran homelessness – and can end all homelessness. The vision of ending homelessness and setting bold, ambitious goals have helped get us to this point, and there’s no going back.

We’re also going to hold on to the value that our decisions and strategies should be driven by evidence and data and what we know is working. Housing First. Supportive Housing. Rapid Re-housing. Targeting and prioritizing. Coordinated Entry. The strategies that have been central to the progress made in recent years.

We’re also going to stay focused on the truths about the differences in people’s experiences of homelessness and on doing more to address the stark disparities in who experiences homelessness in our country. For example, because we know that LGBTQ youth are at such higher risk of homelessness, we must continue to tailor and target our strategies and we must all do more to make sure that LGBTQ youth can find support no matter where they live or to whom they turn for assistance.

Also, because we know that African-Americans and Native Americans are at such higher risks of homelessness, we must do much more to face head-on the causes of those inequities, including confronting our own racism and confronting the stark disparities in many other systems, such as criminal justice systems, that can help cause people’s homelessness.

We’re going to hold true to the value that we all have to be in this work together--federal agencies, national organizations, state and local agencies, elected officials, advocates, private funders, housing developers, business leaders, all of us. And we’re going to learn the lessons of these recent disasters and crises to try to add even more urgency to our efforts. Witnessing the response to Hurricane Harvey gives me confidence that all of this is possible, that we can end homelessness in Texas and across the country.

The last time I spoke at a conference here in Texas, I commented on the swagger of Texans who are in the fight to end homelessness. You still inspire us at USICH to try to add more swagger to our own work. My only request of each of you today is to recognize how you have taken your skills, your expertise, and your swagger and used all of that to respond to disaster. And you’ve added even more muscle and even greater wisdom through your experience and that response. Recognize that. Claim that. Never forget that. And keep applying those muscles and that hard-fought wisdom to continue to strengthen our response to future disasters and to your work to end homelessness each and every day.