“We All Have a Role to Play”: Jeff Olivet’s Full Remarks at NAEH Conference on Ending Homelessness
USICH Executive Director Jeff Olivet delivered remarks during the 2022 National Conference on Ending Homelessness hosted by the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH).
He discussed the current state of the homelessness movement and the upcoming Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.
Read his full prepared remarks below:
“It is so good to be with you all, and it is so good to be with you in person. After far too many Zoom meetings and far too few handshakes and hugs between old friends, it is great to be together, recommitting ourselves to the critical work of ending homelessness. Through your relentless work for justice over these challenging months, here we are, together for the first time in a long time.
To those of you who have been in this movement for years or even decades, it’s great to see you again. To those of you who are new to the work, we welcome you to the movement and look forward to working alongside you. To those of you who bring your own lived experiences of homelessness, thank you for bringing your courage, your wisdom, and your resolve to every conversation. We need you at every table.
We are grateful to the staff and leadership of the National Alliance to End Homelessness for all your work. Nan Roman, as you move into your next chapter, please know that you carry with you our admiration for your tireless advocacy and leadership. Your work has impacted so, so many lives. To Ann Oliva, I cannot imagine a better choice to lead this organization into the future. I am honored to know you and excited to continue our work together.
Where We Are Now
We are at a critical moment in our work to end homelessness in the United States. The combination of unprecedented resources and persistent challenges has made our work as important as it has ever been.
Sometimes the work is tiring. It can be tiring when communities struggle with too few resources and too little public and political support. It can be tiring that we are too often in crisis response mode and spread so thin that it is hard to create systemic solutions. It can be tiring to have the incredible successes we see, with tens of thousands—no, hundreds of thousands—of people exiting homelessness each year, only to be undercut when we see hundreds of thousands more become homeless for the first time.
It is also easy to become angry. And we should be angry about some things: that we as a society have failed so many of our friends and neighbors, our brothers and sisters. That systemic racism, the ongoing impact of redlining and continued discrimination in housing, jobs, education, health care, and criminal justice have led to staggering racial disparities in who becomes homeless—with Black Americans and Native Americans most impacted. That LGBTQI+ people—whose rights are again under attack every day—experience homelessness at such alarmingly high rates.
We face significant obstacles. More and more states and municipalities have passed or are considering inhumane laws that criminalize homelessness. Police sweeps of encampments traumatize people who have nowhere else to go, too often without an offer of housing and support. Across the nation, evidence-based approaches like Housing First are under attack, and homelessness is increasingly politicized. In our highly charged political climate, people entrench with those they agree with and are unable to have constructive conversations across party lines.
I don’t believe it has to be this way. Homelessness is not and should not be a partisan issue. We must come together, find common ground, and bring our best thinking—regardless of political party—to solve these challenges.
It is easy to become tired and angry, but we cannot allow exhaustion and frustration to drive us to despair or make us lose hope. Let us use our time together this week, in community, as an opportunity to rekindle the fire that keeps us going, to transform our frustration into hope and our outrage into a force for change.
Homelessness is a life-and-death crisis, and we need to bring to it the same urgency and focus we bring to other disasters—hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, and, yes, pandemics.
Where We Are Going
We in the Biden-Harris administration are moving with urgency on multiple fronts. I am the executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH)—the only federal agency solely dedicated to ending homelessness. Many of our amazingly talented staff are here in the audience today. Our policy team shapes our coordinated federal response to homelessness; our legislative affairs team represents us on Capitol Hill; our senior regional advisors work with you at the state and local levels; our communications team shares information and resources; and our administration team serves as the glue that holds it all together. Please connect with them while you’re here.
Our council is made up of 19 agencies, including the departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Veterans Affairs (VA), Health and Human Services (HHS), Education, Labor (DOL), Transportation (DOT), and Interior. The council’s work is guided by HUD Secretary Fudge, our chair, and by VA Secretary McDonough, our vice chair. Our job is to point the efforts of those 19 agencies in a coordinated, strategic direction.
To that end, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness is spearheading the development of a new Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness, which we will release soon. The plan has been shaped by significant input from many of you and your colleagues across the country, including more than 600 communities and 500 individuals who have experienced homelessness.
The plan will lead with equity, commit to data-driven solutions, and promote collaboration at the federal, state, and local levels. Our plan not only will bring significant focus to the crisis of unsheltered homelessness, but we will also focus on scaling housing and service solutions that work and going upstream to prevent homelessness from occurring in the first place.
The plan is grounded in a belief that housing is the fundamental solution to homelessness and housing is the foundation upon which so many other good things can happen for people—access to stable income and educational opportunities; recovery from mental illness, addiction, and trauma; and reconnection with family, friends, and community.
We recognize the critical importance of addressing homelessness among all groups who are at risk: youth, families, veterans, older Americans, and people with disabilities. We can no longer pit one group against another, but instead, we must adequately resource solutions for all those experiencing homelessness. We must work to end homelessness for all while tailoring the solutions to best meet the needs of specific groups.
Housing is essential, but for many, housing is not sustainable without robust wraparound supports. I have seen too many people move into housing only to find themselves struggling to access the services they need. I have seen too many people move into housing only to become overwhelmed by depression and take their own lives. We must scale supports to keep pace with the housing we provide.
Yes, we must address the crisis of homelessness for those who are homeless tonight here in Washington, D.C., and across the nation, and we must continue to invest in the housing and supports we know to be effective. But that is not enough.
Nationally, an average of 2,500 people exit homelessness every day—almost a million people a year. That is a testament to the incredible work you do. Yet in recent years, more people entered homelessness than exited. That’s bad math. If we don’t figure out how to stem inflow—to turn off the faucet—we run the risk of being here 20 years from now having these same conversations.
We must go upstream. This will require serious collaboration across systems. Homelessness is a cross-systems problem in need of cross-systems solutions. That means working with child welfare systems to ensure that no young person—so many of whom are youth of color and LGBTQI+ youth—ever ages out of foster care into homelessness. It means working closely with the criminal justice system to make sure that no one ever leaves jail or prison only to end up in a shelter or an encampment. It means targeting eviction prevention resources to zip codes that are most impacted by eviction. Such approaches will not only reduce homelessness overall but will also move the needle on high rates of homelessness among communities of color.
The new plan will address these issues—equity, data and evidence, collaboration, crisis response, housing and supports, and prevention. I commit to you that we will do everything in our power at the federal level to advance real and sustainable solutions. We will need your help at the national, state, and local level to do the same.
We all have a role to play. Elected officials and government agencies. Nonprofits. Philanthropy. Business leaders and the faith community. And all the work must be guided by those with lived experience of homelessness—the real experts among us. Things go wrong when the people in power make decisions without the people most affected in the room. People who have experienced homelessness should be at every decision-making table, and they should be paid justly for their leadership.
We will succeed only when we all come together with our best ideas, an openness to the ideas of others, and a relentless commitment to keep coming back until the work is done.
At USICH, we believe that it is possible to end homelessness. We believe that housing is a human right, and that housing is health care. We believe that we must acknowledge and eliminate systemic racism and the racial disparities it has created. We believe that data and evidence are the basis for effective policymaking. We believe that people who have experienced homelessness should be in positions of power to shape federal, state, and local policy. We believe we can prevent homelessness before it starts and that both housing and services are critical to ending homelessness. We believe the federal government has a duty to listen to local needs and support local innovation. We believe we will end homelessness by fixing systems—not blaming the people being failed by them.
Homelessness is not inevitable. It does not have to be this way. We will not be satisfied when political dissension gets in the way of real progress. We will not be satisfied with handcuffs rather than housing. We do not want to make homelessness rare. We do not want to make it brief. Because it doesn't matter if homelessness is rare, brief, and only one time when it happens to your family. We want to end homelessness altogether. We will not be satisfied until every American—every child, every young person, every veteran, every senior, every individual—has a roof over their head and a place to call home.
In closing, let me say to those who are new to the field, we need your energy, your new ideas. To those who have been at it for a while, we need your wisdom, your experience. Our work is not easy, but there is nothing more important than what you do every day. Your work is what counts, not the criticism of the cynics. Because you can say something they cannot: “I showed up. I did my best.”
So, even as you take care of others, make sure you are taking care of yourself. These have been difficult times. Continue to give yourself and the people around you a little extra grace. We need you now and for a long time to come.
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Photo Credit: Caitlin Mello/NAEH