First Lady Urges Leaders to Join Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness

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First Lady Michelle Obama recognizes Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker for his city's efforts to eliminate veteran homelessness.
First Lady Michelle Obama recognizes Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker for his city’s efforts to eliminate veteran homelessness.

Yesterday in the East Room of the White House, First Lady Michelle Obama announced the launch of the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness as part of the Joining Forces initiative. Joining the First Lady were mayors from cities across the country, including St. Paul, Salt Lake City, Houston, New Orleans, Jacksonville and Tallahassee.

These local leaders are some of the 77 mayors, four governors and four county officials who have committed to ending veteran homelessness in their communities by the end of 2015.

“When a veteran comes home kissing the ground, it is unacceptable that they should have to sleep on it,” said Mrs. Obama. “The fact that we have more than 58,000 homeless veterans is a moral outrage. We can’t just throw up our hands and say that this problem is too big for us, because the truth is, it’s not.”

The First Lady noted that local officials are leading efforts to end veteran homelessness, “because it’s not just the right thing to do for our veterans, but it’s the right thing to do for their budgets.”

She continued, “Recent studies have shown that just one chronically homeless person can cost communities between $30,000 to $50,000 per year in emergency room visits, medical bills and law enforcement. For some individuals, it can be even higher. But the cost to give someone a home of their own is only about $20,000.”

The event comes as the federal goal of ending veteran homelessness in 2015 is less than 18 months away. With a decline of 24 percent in veteran homelessness since 2010, the nation is making significant progress – and much of this success, as the First Lady noted, is because of city leadership.

Creating a “Yes Culture”

Cities have been at the forefront of ending veteran homelessness for reasons that were summed up by Houston’s Director of Homeless Initiatives, Mandy Chapman Semple, who spoke about the ability of mayors to create a “yes culture.”

“Mayor Parker created a ‘yes culture’ that was brought together with technical expertise on the ground,” said Chapman Semple. “Service providers are often eager to collaborate but don’t know how. When their obstacles are identified with the help of technical engagement and the support of mayors, then there really is a yes culture.”

Mayor Parker’s leadership has relied on measurable goals and appropriate metrics to gauge progress. “In Houston, we were initially measuring our success by how many veterans we were placing into housing,” said Mayor Parker. “But then we realized that our housing retention rate was only 50%. We knew we had to fix something. As a result, we focused on what we could do to ensure veterans stayed in housing.”

Mayor Parker said that leaders have to be willing to use a “big stick” and block funding for organizations who do not adjust to meet the goal of ending veteran homelessness.

The mayor went on to say, “We have a lot of great organizations who for decades had been doing good work, but they were working in parallel. We brought everyone together and said that the silos that were preventing success had to be broken down. We identified who was doing what worked best and aligned everyone around the specific goal of ending veteran homelessness.”

Building a Network

The theme of city leaders breaking down silos, forming partnerships and accomplishing what needs to be done was echoed by other mayors in attendance.

Joining Mayor Parker was NLC President and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, NLC 1st Vice President and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown.

Mayor Coleman spoke about developing systems that provide “real time” information through partnerships with state agencies, non-profits and other stakeholders. In addition, the mayor discussed the importance of local leaders using their positions in the community to raise awareness about ending veteran homelessness and urging their peers in surrounding cities to join them.

To help gather support among local leaders, Mayor Coleman created the Homeless Veteran Leadership Network (HVLN) within NLC. The HVLN supports the Mayors Challenge by engaging NLC members to join the Challenge, connecting them to technical resources and sharing best practices.

Focusing on What Works

Other best practices shared by leaders from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), and Department of Veterans Affairs and other cities such as New York and Tallahassee include:

  • Engaging all sectors of the community and coordinating them through a lead agency designated and supported by the mayor.
  • Using data-driven strategies such as Housing First to place homeless veterans into housing and include supportive services as necessary.
  • Developing “coordinated assessment” systems to effectively and efficiently match available resources to those in need.
  • Knowing all homeless veterans by name and prioritize them for services using tools such as the Vulnerability Index.
  • “Co-locating” federal VA officials in the same physical space as city and state agencies to reduce the amount of time and the number of trips veterans must make before getting needed services such as access to employment, healthcare, and education.
  • Having trained police officers actively engaged with homeless service providers.
  • Integrating employment efforts with the work of homeless service providers.
  • Providing free public transportation passes to veterans.

Continuing the Momentum

Throughout the day, local leaders were recognized for the critical role they play in ending veteran homelessness. With progress being seen in so many communities, there is no doubt that momentum is building. We know what works, we have the data and for the first time in decades, communities have the needed resources.

The White House’s recognition and leadership is a testament to this exciting moment. But in the end, honoring our veterans goes beyond events at the White House and parades on holidays. Truly honoring the men and women who have served our nation must first be made evident by all of us doing what is necessary to ensure each and every veteran has a safe place to call home.

Click here to join the Mayors Challenge today.

For more information about how NLC can help start or improve efforts to end veteran homelessness in your community, visit www.nlc.org/veteranshousing or contact us at veterans@nlc.org.

Watch the First Lady’s announcement and read the White House fact sheet.

 Elisha_blogAbout the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.