Ambassador Susan E. Rice Remarks to National Conference on Ending Homelessness
As Prepared For Delivery:
Good morning, everyone. Thank you, Ann, for that introduction and for stepping up to lead this remarkable organization. I also want to salute Nan Roman for her years of service—not only as the head of the National Alliance, but as a valued partner of the Biden-Harris Administration and many others. Thank you, Nan. Let me also recognize one of your co-founders and past chairs, Susan Baker, whose tremendous work helped make this group the force it is today.
It’s good to be with some of our nation’s most thoughtful and passionate advocates working to end homelessness. I’m honored to be here on behalf of a champion for making housing available to all, President Joe Biden. The President believes deeply that every American deserves a roof over their head—not only as a matter of security, stability, and well-being, but as a matter of dignity. Guided by that conviction, I’m looking forward to sharing a bit today about how far we’ve come, the work ahead, and the holistic approach we need to realize the goal of a nation without homelessness.
During his 2020 presidential campaign, President Biden pledged to pursue a comprehensive approach to ending homelessness. He committed to undoing counterproductive and often harmful policies, and to taking a “Housing First” approach to our homelessness crisis. He promised to partner with mayors and local officials on the frontlines of this fight. He committed to protecting Americans who too often find themselves living on the edge, from veterans to LGBTQI+ individuals to people who were formerly incarcerated.
It happened that President Biden unveiled that campaign commitment on February 24th, 2020. The very next day, the CDC warned Americans to brace for a deadly new coronavirus. Within weeks, the pandemic surged across the country, falling especially hard on the most economically vulnerable Americans and on those already experiencing homelessness. Millions of Americans found themselves unemployed, and in many cases, on the streets. To comply with social distancing requirements, shelters were forced to turn people away. Many of you saw this up close.
Faced with a once-in-a-century pandemic, President Biden didn’t retreat from his commitment to tackle the homelessness crisis. He wasn’t deterred. Instead, he doubled down.
The President’s landmark American Rescue Plan invested historic resources to address homelessness. We distributed 70,000 emergency housing vouchers. We devoted $5 billion for the HOME Investment Partnerships program to create permanent, safe, supportive housing. We put another $800 million towards support for homeless families. Many of you have utilized billions of dollars in State and Local Recovery Funds, to keep people off the streets and create permanent housing.
Confronting the prospect of a flood of evictions, the Biden-Harris Administration has distributed over $30 billion of $46 billion in Emergency Rental Assistance to cover rent and utilities, helping over 6 million households. HUD implemented new rules requiring landlords to provide more notice before evictions and more information about available assistance. We offered unprecedented flexibility in the use of federal funds, so the most vulnerable households could access this assistance. When the courts threatened the CDC’s eviction moratorium, we fought to keep the moratorium in place and keep Americans in their homes for as long as possible.
As we’ve reached a point in the pandemic where COVID-19 is no longer the disruptive force it once was, our Administration has nonetheless kept our foot on the gas. Last September, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness launched our House America plan, an all-hands-on-deck effort to rehouse at least 100,000 people experiencing homelessness and expand the supply of safe and affordable housing by at least 20,000 units by the end of this year. We followed that up with a Housing Supply Action Plan, including reforms to ensure that we’re using federal land and buildings to create more housing for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. At the VA and HUD, my colleagues Secretary Fudge and Secretary McDonough are busy implementing a bold plan to eliminate veterans homelessness.
These policies, and this record infusion of resources, are delivering real results. According to a HUD analysis, the American Rescue Plan and earlier rounds of relief will lift up to 211,000 households from homelessness into safe and stable housing over the course of the next several years. For example, here in D.C., homelessness has reportedly been cut 13 percent in the past year alone.
This is significant, hard-won progress. But, homelessness in America is still on the rise, and more than half a million people on any given night are sleeping in shelters or cars or encampments, including just blocks from the White House. Relative to their percentage of the overall population, there are three times as many Black Americans—and five times as many Native Americans—experiencing homelessness. Tens of thousands of people die every year for lack of stable housing, with a life expectancy among people experiencing homelessness nearly 30 years less than the average American.
We can and must do better. That means addressing homelessness wisely and comprehensively, based on what research tells us works. Instead of withholding housing and food until someone overcomes obstacles such as addiction or mental illness, we need to recognize that a home is the foundation on which to rebuild a life—which means focusing on Housing First. Instead of only trying to get people off the streets, we need to focus relentlessly on preventing people from experiencing homelessness in the first place. Instead of criminalizing homelessness, we need to address the underlying causes and provide the support and services people need. Not having a home should be a tragedy, not a felony.
Ending homelessness requires a whole-of-government response that breaks down barriers and bureaucratic silos. The Domestic Policy Council coordinates our homelessness response, alongside leaders like Secretary Fudge, Secretary McDonough, and Jeff Olivet, who heads the Interagency Council on Homelessness. That coordination ensures we’re addressing homelessness in the context of our Administration’s work on a wide range of issues, from criminal justice reform to mental health. You’ll see that reflected in our federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness, which will address in particular unsheltered homelessness. We’ll have more to share in the coming months, but I’m excited to say that our plan is ambitious, and it embodies this interdisciplinary approach.
This morning, let me elaborate on just three cross-cutting imperatives: advancing equity, addressing mental health, and decriminalizing homelessness.
First, since homelessness disproportionately impacts certain communities, we must continue to advance equity in all that we do. On President Biden’s very first day in office, he signed a historic Executive Order making equity and racial justice the business of the entire federal government. That had never been done before, and it’s been a game-changer when it comes to addressing homelessness. For example, we helped get Emergency Rental Assistance to those most in need by taking steps like reducing burdensome documentation requirements and expanding outreach—including multilingual outreach—through unions and faith organizations. As a result, over 80 percent of that assistance went to our lowest-income families. Sixty percent went to Black or Hispanic renters. Two thirds went to female-headed households. Low-income and majority-Black neighborhoods experienced the greatest reduction in evictions.
Consider the steps we’ve taken to protect LGBTQI+ people from discrimination in housing. Within weeks of taking office, HUD announced that it would enforce the Fair Housing Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and sexual identity. HUD restored protections so that transgender Americans experiencing homelessness can access shelters consistent with their gender identity. This past June, during Pride Month, President Biden directed his Administration to further address LGBTQI+ homelessness and housing instability. His order charged federal agencies with strengthening services supporting LGBTQI+ individuals and expanded voluntary family counseling programs, so that fewer LGBTQI+ young people are rejected by their families and more can stay in a loving home.
Secondly, to help end homelessness, we must ensure access to mental health, trauma, and substance use services for all Americans, including by promoting better crisis response. Our nation’s mental health crisis impacts Americans of all backgrounds. Yet, with severe mental health issues afflicting more than one in five people experiencing homelessness, mental health is deeply intertwined with—and exacerbated by—homelessness.
As part of the Unity Agenda he announced in the State of the Union, President Biden laid out a comprehensive strategy to transform how we understand and treat mental health conditions. That means building a system with enough capacity to treat everyone. It means connecting people to the services they need, by tackling high costs and other barriers. Lastly, it means supporting all Americans by creating environments that support mental health and wellbeing, whether that’s in school or online. At the same time, we’re implementing a National Drug Control Strategy, focused on expanding access to treatment and ensuring that resources are deployed alongside housing support, so that people leaving treatment don’t end up back on the streets.
Third, we must continue working to halt the criminalization of homelessness and safely reduce unnecessary interactions with the criminal justice system. Over the past decade and a half, we’ve seen a 50 percent increase in laws making it illegal to sit or sleep in public outdoor spaces. Nearly every state has a law on the books criminalizing homelessness.
It’s time we acknowledge that we cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of this problem. The executive order President Biden signed in May to advance effective, accountable policing made this point explicitly. It calls for supporting alternative responses to arrest and incarceration, including for people experiencing homelessness. Many of you have likely seen these alternate models at work. In Denver, for example, participants in a program that provides both affordable housing and support services experienced eight fewer police contacts and four fewer arrests than those who received no housing support. On average, they spent 38 days less in jail. That’s better for individuals. It’s better for police, who can focus on real crime. It’s better for communities. So let’s create more of these evidence-based alternatives.
To further advance our holistic approach to homelessness, President Biden’s FY23 budget seeks significant increases in funding for homeless assistance programs. Nearly $3.6 billion for Homeless Assistance Grants with support for shelter, outreach, rapid rehousing, and homelessness prevention. Over $4.2 billion to support Veterans experiencing homeless. The President also requested a $4.7 billion increase to the Housing Choice Vouchers—which would fund as many as 200,000 additional vouchers—along with a $450 million increase to the HOME Investment Program. Taken together, these investments constitute a major push by the federal government to help end homelessness.
But, tackling this challenge with all of its facets will take each of us in this room and beyond. State and local officials. Continuum of care providers. Academics. Advocates. Remarkable individuals who have experienced homelessness yourselves and are now helping others get back on their feet. You are healers and heroes.
I know the pandemic exhausted providers and budgets alike. I also know what can be accomplished by all of us working in concert, getting creative, and bringing everyone to the table—and there’s no time to waste.
We all feel the urgency of meeting this moment just walking down the street, reading the desperation in our fellow Americans’ eyes and on hand-lettered cardboard signs. Recently, an artist collected a number of those signs for an exhibit at the D.C. public library. Some of you may be familiar with the exhibit. There are messages reading:
“Vet. No Job. I don’t like this. I just need a little help. God bless.”
“This is awkward 4 me, too.”
“Need a miracle.”
“If home is where the heart is
Where does the heart go
When there is no home?”
These are words of loss and longing—and, one day, I hope the rare place we’ll be able to see them is in an exhibit at a museum. Together, let’s marshal all of our empathy, all of our smarts, and all of our resources. Let’s break down old barriers and build new models of support. Let’s move our nation closer to a future where no one experiences the tragedy and hardship of homelessness, and everyone has a safe, stable, and affordable home.
Thank you very much.