Speech – Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness

Thank you, Congressman Doggett, for that introduction. And thank you, Secretary Castro, for being here today, and good morning to everyone here.

Not with us today is Senator Kirk Watson, whose staff showed up to help with this initiative and never left. He can’t be here today, but rest assured he’ll know that we’re thanking him now, so thank you, Kirk.

Normally, the way you do this is to start off by thanking people before you get to the meat of your speech. This is not going to be that kind of speech. It’s all going to be all thank you’s. There are going to be so many thank you’s that if this were an Oscars speech I’d never be allowed to finish.

We’re here today to celebrate that all of you have achieved what at one time was thought impossible — the functional end to chronic veteran homelessness in Austin. And I mean all of you. If success has a lot of fathers, we’re never going to be able to establish paternity here.

I need to start two years ago, when First Lady Michelle Obama issued the challenge to America’s mayors to end veteran homelessness in their cities.

To quote her Michelle Obama, “I think we can all agree that if a single veteran returns home and doesn’t have a roof over his or her head, that is an affront to everything this country stands for – because no one who’s worn this country’s uniform should ever have to spend a single night – even a single hour – out on the streets.”

Our first thank you is to Army veteran Manuel Moran Jr. and every one of the 682 veterans who found permanent housing as a result of the Housing Heroes initiative. Thank you for your service, Manuel, and thank you for the opportunity to be of service to you.

Next, when they call this the Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, they’re not talking about me. My predecessor, Lee Leffingwell, is the one who accepted the challenge. He served our country as a Naval aviator before he served our community as Mayor. He’s here today, and we need to thank him for his bold leadership.

When he set the goal to end veteran homelessness, there didn’t yet exist the capacity to reach it.

Veterans became chronically homeless, waiting for months even to get onto the waiting lists. Many of us felt hopeless about ever solving the problem.

Luckily, the heroic groups I’m about to thank here Never. Lost. Hope.

ECHO, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, did not give up hope.

Caritas did not give up hope.

Front Steps and Green Doors and a New Entry and the Salvation Army and Goodwill did not give up hope.

The Housing Authority of the City of Austin did not give up hope.

And yes, HUD and the VA did not give up hope.

To all of you who believed in the solution before we knew where to look for it, thank you for your faith, thank you for your strength, and thank you for waiting for the rest of us to show up.

We found the solution when we addressed the biggest problem, which was access to housing.

And who has access to housing? The realtors and apartment owners.

Putting people who need housing in the same room with people who have housing is so obvious you are entitled to ask why it took us so long to it figure out. But we all felt like we’d invented the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

But then we ran into a wall – fear of the unknown. Many landlords were will to help, but had the concern that veterans paying rent with VA vouchers might not make good tenants – that folks, some of whom had had encounters with the law or substance issues – might not make good tenants. So we started a risk fund called the Housing Heroes Fund – a fund created by all of us to be available in case something went wrong… just in case it was needed. And then the wall went away. (And by the way, there have been very few claims made to the fund.)

And that’s when we found a whole new bunch of heroes.

Heroes like Jimmy Arnold who made an entire apartment complex available to veterans in the highest need.

Heroes like Jason Berkowitz and Roscoe Properties who apartments available to veterans at multiple properties across Austin.

Heroes like the Austin Board of Realtors, like the Austin Chamber of Commerce, and most of all, to Paul Cauduro of the Austin Apartment Association. As much as anyone in town, Paul and the Apartment Association deserve our thanks for their tireless efforts to find permanent housing for veterans. Also, I’m happy to say that the Apartment Association now includes instruction in how to help homeless veterans in the fair housing training that they provide to apartment managers.
To all these local heroes, from all of us in Austin who did not dream that we could accomplish this, thank you!

Suddenly, we were cooking with gas.

The Housing Authority of the City of Austin expedited inspections.

The VA focused resources with a can-do attitude.

Rental property owners came out of the woodwork to offer help.

All the service providers – those dogged heroes – worked with the property owners and kept them engaged.

Donors stepped up to provide a financial backstop for the property owners breaking every fundraising goal we had with the Housing Heroes Fund.

And. It. Worked.

Now, for privacy reasons, I can’t use names here, but let me tell you what you accomplished. Last November, Caritas found a veteran who had to send her teenage son to live with relatives because she became homeless. Caritas got her into a two-bedroom duplex with all her basic needs to make that house a home.

Now she’s got a job.

She’s supporting herself and doesn’t need assistance.

And – here’s the best part – she’s back together with her son.

You – the people in this room – did that.

There’s the Marine and his wife who lived for a year and a half in a tent near the Greenbelt. They barely survived the Memorial Day flood in 2015. Many nights, they slept soaking wet. Once they got on Caritas’ radar, a caseworker brought them water, bus passes, dry sleeping bags while Caritas worked to find permanent housing.

Now? That Marine and his wife live in an apartment building where every single one of their neighbors is rented to veterans through the Housing Heroes initiative.

I am so grateful to have helped to reunite that mother with her son, to bring that Marine out of the rain, to help put Manuel and his kids under the same roof and to erase the backlog and to get homeless veterans into permanent housing in Austin. To them, and to all of you, I want to say thank you. I am grateful for the opportunity to do good in this job.

This experience has changed who we are. Austin is capable of doing more good for each other now. We have a new ecosystem that isn’t going away capable of helping any veterans who end up homeless in Austin. The people in this room have accomplished what had been thought impossible.
And now they are ready for what’s next.

HUD’s next goal is to end chronic homelessness in 2017. These are disabled folks who’ve been homeless for more than a year or four times in the last three years.

Secretary Castro, I am pleased to tell you that these folks are ready to go. The coalition that has been working together to end veteran homelessness has asked me to tell you that they have accepted your challenge to end chronic homelessness.

And that [to the crowd] is where you come in. This community – your community, all of you – have taken on a big, hairy monster of a goal – ending chronic homelessness. To everyone reading the newspaper, to everyone watching the news – this includes you.

We need more housing units.

And we need more money.

But as we have all seen, Austin can accomplish anything when we all work together.

And that’s my final thank you. To those who are taking on this next, even bigger goal, to those raise their hand when asked the impossible, to everyone who answers my call for more housing and more financial help, you have my gratitude and admiration.

You are what makes us a better city.

You are what makes us a more perfect union.

And you are the ones to whom I say, with a heart full of gratitude, thank you.