In Ending Homelessness, We Leave No-one Behind

Congresswoman Maxine WatersOn September 10, Congresswoman Maxine Waters hosted a briefing for members of Congress, at which USICH Executive Director Matthew Doherty, HUD Senior Advisor Jennifer Ho, and actor and humanitarian Richard Gere spoke about the state of homelessness in America. The briefing offered an opportunity to review progress to end homelessness for all Americans under the recently amended Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.

Driven by Congresswoman Waters’ concern about the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness in Los Angeles, this briefing especially highlighted the opportunity we have to end chronic homelessness in America in the next two years. It served as an important reminder of who the effort to end chronic homelessness is all about — the men and women whose severity of needs and complex health and behavioral health challenges make it difficult for them to seek or obtain help without a special focus.

Ending chronic homelessness is about the elderly woman I met in a Seattle shelter whose psychiatric illness was so severe that she refuses to wear shoes on her bloodied and calloused feet.

It’s about the man that approached my colleagues and me on the Los Angeles Metro Rail incoherent and in tears; he was just discharged from the hospital with a script for meds for bipolar disorder but was so overwhelmed and distraught that he couldn’t find his way to the drug store.

It’s about Lee, a man I met nearly 20 years ago in Boston who spent his years in and out of jails and on the streets, struggled with heroin addiction and HIV/AIDS, but after obtaining supportive housing, began to play a leadership role in advocating for the needs of formerly incarcerated people living with HIV/AIDS.

It’s about the woman you worry about as other people avoid her on a subway car or on a street corner, as she is swearing loudly and angrily at everyone around her (although you know she’s really only swearing at her inner demons.) 

These are the individuals that are the focus of efforts to end chronic homelessness. They are people with severe and complex health and behavioral health problems.  They are people with disabilities. They are more likely to be unsheltered than sheltered. They are very likely to have involvement in the criminal justice system, largely because of policies that criminalize homelessness, mental health disorders, and addiction. Although they have been left to fend for themselves on the streets and in shelters for years and decades, they were once children, youth, members of families, and many have survived domestic violence. They are people who are aging on the streets and headed for even more challenging health problems. 

With these men and women in mind, I am buoyed by this renewed dialogue on the needs of these individuals and renewed in my conviction that we must not stop now in our effort to end chronic homelessness. 

The Administration remains committed to achieving an end to chronic homelessness. We remain committed to ensuring that no one with a disability should experience homelessness, let alone long-term homelessness. We know what the solution is—permanent supportive housing—and we know how much of it we need, how much it will cost, and what it takes to engage and connect people to it. In fact, we’ve had this knowledge for many years, and have waited too long to act on it.  We cannot wait any longer.

Our commitment to ending chronic homelessness in no way diminishes our commitment and efforts to end homelessness for all Americans. In fact, it strengthens it. By ending chronic homelessness, we demonstrate that we will leave no one behind—no matter how vulnerable, troubled, or challenging their needs. It shows how we have truly shifted in our response from a first-come, first-served approach towards an approach that actively seeks to help the most vulnerable and least able to self-advocate. We show that we consider no one beyond our reach, no needs too great, no challenges too complex for us to tackle. We show the full extent of the power of our solutions: that everyone can exit homelessness, everyone can be housed.

At the briefing, Richard Gere made the point that homelessness is not only about the lack of a physical home, but also about loneliness and isolation. His film reminds us of the importance of connection, of togetherness, of community. He reminds us that it was a community and coalition that led to the creation and adoption of Opening Doors, and how together, we affirmed a vision that no one should experience homelessness, no one should be without a safe and stable place to call home. And he reminds us all that by working together, as one community and with one voice, we can make this vision a reality.

Watch the briefing


Richard Cho is the Deputy Director for USICH, where he coordinates USICH's Federal policy efforts and the implementation of Opening Doors. 

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