We Must Be a Nation with a Home for Every Child
Adapted from remarks delivered to the National Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness.
This is an exciting time in the work to end homelessness. I have to tell you, when the President decided his budget would invest $11 billion to end family homelessness by 2020 – I wanted to reach for the phone and call my mom, call everyone who has been fighting to end homelessness in this country.
You see, I grew up in the middle of the Osborn School District in central Phoenix, Arizona. It’s where my mom taught before I was born, where my brother and I went to school, where I returned to teach summer school, and where she returned to build a network of impassioned educators as the new superintendent – in a district where teachers walking into the classroom in August can expect 40 to 50 percent of their students will be gone by the end of the year, replaced with a new group hoping that maybe, this time, they have found a home.
Because in Osborn, like many districts in Indian Country and hollowed-out small towns and isolated central cities, most parents struggle to make ends meet. Many bounce between a relative’s house and a friend’s, a brief stay in a motel and back out again, still looking for a home. And the spark of enthusiasm that teachers see in a child’s eye – the progress they’ve made – is lost when that desk is empty the next day, and sometimes weeks pass before they walk through a new classroom door across the Valley, across the state, and the spark must be built from scratch again.
It’s in districts like Osborn that you can sit down with a fourth-grader who’s gleefully folding a piece of pepperoni pizza into his mouth, and learn that he and his brother didn’t show up for the school’s Thanksgiving dinner because they were staying at their mother’s ex-boyfriend’s house – but he reassures you that it’s okay, they had a meal. They went to McDonald’s and his little brother, the first-grader, managed to sneak the lettuce from his burger to feed their turtle, which is also a secret they keep, because you’re not allowed to be loud, or cause a fuss, or have a pet turtle when you’re staying at your mom’s ex-boyfriend’s house.
And everyone sitting at that table with that child, holding a slice of pizza and matching his grin despite what they feel – everyone at that table knows he deserves a home, and his brother deserves a home. Everyone in this room knows that they deserve a home. That every last one of the 123,000 children facing homelessness on a given night deserves a home. That they were created in the image of God like any other child, deserve sanctuary and security like any other child, and will grow to chase their dreams like any other child – if we do what we can do, and make America a nation with a home for every child.
We can end family homelessness in America. Because though we have more work to do, though we must strengthen our safety net and accelerate mobility out of poverty, just look at the progress we’ve made against similar challenges worldwide and here at home.
Over the last two decades, as the size of our global economy has more than doubled, extreme poverty worldwide has fallen by more than half. Infant and child mortality has been cut in half. Violent crime has fallen sharply. Far fewer of us awaken to the gnawing of hunger. Far fewer of us fall asleep fearing for our family’s safety. The desperation that has marked the human experience since time immemorial is rarer and less severe than it has ever been.
Here in the United States, from the beginning of the War on Poverty, through strategies like nutrition assistance and the earned income tax credit, we’ve reduced the poverty rate by 40 percent in the last 50 years. Forty percent. Don’t let anyone tell you the War on Poverty isn’t worth fighting. Child poverty fell further over the last two years than it had since the turn of the century. In the midst of the longest job creation streak on record, unemployment has been cut in half, now falling under five percent. The high school graduation rate has reached an all-time high. And thanks to the Affordable Care Act, more than 18 million people have gained health insurance. For the first time in history, more than 90 percent of Americans have coverage.
We’re Ending Homelessness Because of All of You
We are here today in the most prosperous nation on earth in the most prosperous time in history, and we are here to affirm three truths: we have a moral duty to end homelessness, we know how to end homelessness, and we – together – are ending homelessness right now.
We’re ending homelessness because of you, and the work you commit to every day. Because of the public servants, past and present, who followed the evidence to set policy even when it was hard, and worked hand-in-hand to make the federal government a better partner for you. We’re ending homelessness because we have a President who knows that homelessness is not an inexorable problem. Who believes that the reality of our families living in cars and ramshackle motels is not a reality we must accept in resignation, surrendering to the lie that we’ve done all we can. We have a President who believes that an America whose sons and daughters still go homeless is an America with more work to do, an America that must grip the arc of the moral universe more firmly, and pull harder to bend it toward justice.
And that's why in 2010 he laid out the first-ever federal plan – not to manage homelessness, but to end homelessness in America. Following the evidence. Doing what works. Relentlessly tracking and accelerating our progress.
It’s amazing how far we've come in just a few short years. Despite budget sequestration, family homelessness has fallen by 19 percent. Bipartisan support for America’s veterans has helped cities like Las Vegas, Houston, and Philadelphia end homelessness among veterans, and now entire states – Virginia and Connecticut – have done the same. That drumbeat won’t stop. And soon, we will put an end to an injustice that has endured since the Revolutionary War – the injustice of Americans serving this country then lacking a home in it.
In this success with veterans, including veterans with children, we’ve learned we can end homelessness with federal resources for rapid re-housing and permanent housing, deployed though a strong local partnership. We’ve also learned through many of your successes, and through investments to build better evidence and data.
We’ve focused on the overrepresentation of LGBT youth experiencing homelessness, and of people of color experiencing homelessness, and we must all invest more in better understanding and addressing the mechanisms of structural racism and open bias or implicit bias that perpetuate these injustices.
Through your work, and the work of thousands of partners across the country, we have learned what we must do to end homelessness. We know what works.
That’s why the President’s budget invests $11 billion over 10 years to end family homelessness in America by 2020 and maintain that achievement into the future, through a combination of rapid re-housing and dedicated housing vouchers for families facing homelessness.
The innovation of rapid re-housing has helped us meet more families where they are, providing the assistance they need to get back on their feet, stable in their own home. This streamlined approach enables us to serve more families, arresting their housing crisis before it spirals, and preventing the often destabilizing impact of long shelter stays.
And rigorous studies continue to confirm what we’ve long known to be true – for families facing significant challenges, housing vouchers, as opposed to shelter or transitional housing, are the best solution for long-term stability. When we invest in vouchers to end homelessness, kids do better in school, they’re healthier, and their futures are brighter and more prosperous.
We All Have a Role in Ending Homelessness
But ending homelessness is going to take more than President Obama’s action. It’s going to take all of us. We need everyone who is working to improve children’s health and educational outcomes. We need everyone working on two-generation strategies and early education and family mental health and the justice system.
And to end family homelessness, we simply must build more housing. As new housing supply – including market-rate housing -- has been restricted while demand continues to rise, rents are skyrocketing, outstripping wage growth as we’ve never seen before. Federal housing vouchers – one of our key tools to end homelessness – are only becoming more difficult to use in those cities, and I know it has become harder for many of you to place your clients in housing.
We need local leaders to do even more to tackle the affordable housing crises we’re seeing in regions where local barriers to housing development have accumulated over the last few decades – including outdated zoning codes, unreasonably long permitting processes, and unnecessary parking requirements. In many cases, it’s those local policies that are restricting housing supply and driving up rents.
Take Los Angeles, for example – a region facing an extreme homelessness crisis, which Mayor Garcetti and city and county leaders are making important investments to address. In 1960, Los Angeles was zoned for 10 million homes. Today, Los Angeles is zoned for only 4.3 million homes, despite decades of population growth. We have to build more housing – including market-rate housing.
For those of us concerned about displacement due to new construction, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office released an important new report two weeks ago, showing that low-income families in the Bay Area experienced significantly less displacement over the last decade in communities where more new market-rate housing was built.
So when a city and its suburbs prevent new housing from being built, more families on the edge can’t make the rent, and struggle to avoid homelessness. When this happens in cities across the country, it exacerbates income inequality, as low-income families can’t move to cities with the best job prospects for them, because they can’t afford the housing. And when workers all across the country can’t move to the best jobs, our entire economy suffers – recent studies suggest GDP would be 10 percent higher if workers and capital flowed as freely now as in the 1960s.
For all those reasons, when mayors from across the country came to the White House last month, President Obama called on them to break down the rules that stand in the way of building new housing. We need you to add your voices to that effort, helping local leaders navigate the difficult politics of allowing more new housing, and ensuring that continued evolution of our neighborhoods expands opportunity for more of our neighbors. For more of us.
Because Americans are at our greatest when we say “us” and mean “all of us.” That’s when we don’t sit idly by as one and a half million of our families struggle to survive on less than $2 a day. When more than 123,000 of our kids face homelessness on any given night.
When we say us, we have to mean all of us. Everyone fighting to end family homelessness, and fighting to end youth homelessness, and veteran homelessness, and chronic homelessness – we are fighting together.
Everyone working to ensure that all of our kids have a home, and good food to eat, in a safe neighborhood, with a great school – we are working together. We must work together.
Together. That’s how we’ll bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. That’s how we’ll make the greatest nation on the planet a nation with a home for every child.