DR. BEN CARSON
SECRETARY OF HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT
AT THE NATIONAL CONFERENCE ON ENDING HOMELESSNESS
July 18, 2017
As prepared for delivery. The speaker may add or subtract comments during his presentation.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. It’s quite an honor to be your keynote speaker at such a vital conference, discussing such a pressing issue, at such a pivotal moment in our nation’s history.
There are too many amazing and talented people in this room for me to name—we were given a list of “VIPs” beforehand, and it filled up a page! Of course, everyone at this conference is a VIP in my book.
But for now, I’d just like to thank our hosts and the organizers of this event, in particular, Nan Roman, the Alliance's President and CEO, whom I had the pleasure of meeting a while ago, as well as Jeffery Hayward and Irene Mabry Moses from its board of directors, and Steve Berg and David Dirks, who helped make this conference come together. Thank you so much for all you do.
As we roll out those “hazy, lazy, crazy days of summer,” when all the world seems made for a picnic or a day at the beach, the twilight hour can be the most stunning of the year—gold and purple and beautiful.
But as I watched the sun go down the other day, and set the sky afire, it occurred to me that each evening in America brings two sunsets.
One is that wonderful splash of color—for most of us, a reminder that we are returning home from work, to eat, rest, and be at peace in the comfort of family.
And the other is a symbol of uncertainty, of darkened doorways and steam grates. Of bitter cold or sweltering heat. It is the coming of another night to be braved alone.
I call them two sunsets, for we measure the public tragedy of homelessness as estimated on one winter night—and on a single night last year, there were about 550,000 homeless men, women, and children living in America.
A third of them had no shelter.
40,000 of them were veterans of our Armed Forces.
And hundreds of thousands more of their fellow Americans lived month to month, week to week, unsure if the circumstances of their lives and livelihoods would force them into the same misfortune.
Everyone gathered in this room already knows the statistics by memory.
You recognize that it is a tragedy that a nation as prosperous as ours should see anyone forced to sleep on its streets.
So you have dedicated your life’s work to helping the helpless, and giving hope to those who have given up on hope.
You have achieved marvelous things, even in a few years.
In the last decade, homelessness has declined by 100,000 individuals.
Since that same night in 2007, 100,000 Americans have been helped off the streets, and have finally found a permanent place to live.
In large measure, this was due to the efforts of the courageous men and women in this room today.
Last Friday, HUD gave those efforts a boost, making nearly two billion dollars available to support thousands of local homeless assistance initiatives nationwide through the Continuum of Care Homeless Assistance Program.
We must continue the fight, because half a million of our countrymen cry out for shelter. They ask for the same nights of safety and rest as their fellow Americans.
Their voices echo in this hall, reverberate between every heart, and convict us to work on their behalf.
They remind me that we can never allow homelessness to become just another “fact of life.”
I grew up in rough neighborhoods, in turbulent years. I saw that the challenges of poverty, homelessness, and drugs truly become tragedies when they are seen as “normal”—when they go unquestioned as “just the way things are.”
Today, as then, the continued presence of homelessness in our nation costs us not only morally, but in lost human potential.
Who knows how many new doctors and scientists, artists or athletes we might save in the next generation, by reaching out to the forgotten people of our time, and giving them a new beginning.
And it isn’t just the future we are fighting for. I can guarantee you that there are people without homes right now who would enrich many lives with their talent and dedication, if only given the chance.
I have known some of them in my own life.
One, in my younger days, was a fellow who won a scholarship to a prestigious school in New York. He could not afford room and board, despite his skill and promise.
So he would hide behind a couch in the faculty lounge, and he slept there when everyone left for the day. Between rooms on campus and crashing with friends, he “couch surfed” his way through college.
That story has a happy ending: he went on to establish his own engineering firm. His potential despite his circumstances should inspire us to ask what other wonders disadvantaged people could achieve, if only given the opportunity.
Of course, not everyone can get scholarships, or hold a job. Many have deeper, hidden wounds of the mind, spirit, and body, which have held them apart from society, and made serving their needs a difficult task.
But it is impossible to serve those needs at all, if we do not put Housing First.
A man will not beat addiction from a gutter, he will not get psychiatric help underneath a bridge, and he will not find a steady job without a steady address.
Many taxpayers are understandably concerned about providing housing with no conditions against subsidizing drug use or other harmful behavior.
We must take these concerns very seriously. They are thoughtful, and well-intentioned.
But when we consider the enormous costs of emergency room care, the potential danger and expense of extra policing, and other situations which always arise for homeless populations, it actually saves public resources if we first provide housing, and work with people from there.
That’s why Housing First initiatives make sense—not just morally, but practically. States like Utah have taken great strides with these policies in driving down chronic homelessness, and they are being used as benchmarks for cities across the country.
In recent months, I have also heard from our elected representatives in Congress on a host of issues. Some of them are troubled that Housing First policies could detract from good programs and institutions that operate differently.
These, again, are thoughtful concerns.
That is why I assure all those who care for the homeless and the poor: under my direction, HUD will play no favorites. We are looking for all common sense, data-driven solutions.
The purpose of our work—like private charity, and volunteering—is not to feel good about ourselves, but to achieve good results. And if a program works better than the rest, I will fight to make sure that initiative gets the assistance it needs.
But our mission is not as simple as putting a person under a roof and declaring our job finished. We must ensure that roof has a strong enough foundation to weather future storms.
To me, it’s not simply Housing First—it’s Housing first, second, and third.
First, we make sure a person gets permanent place to stay—a safe place they won’t have to worry about losing every day. It’s amazing how such a haven can comfort and restore. It lends a sense of control to the individual, rebuilding their dignity and self-worth, which are essential cornerstones to self-improvement.
Second, we must diagnose what left this unfortunate individual without a home. It could be as simple as a loss of work, and lack of family and friends for support. Or it could be an untreated mental disorder, which afflicts so many on our streets today.
And of course, one could suffer an addiction to any number of terrible substances that ensnare millions of our fellow Americans with a false promise of escape and relief. But with each high, they are only pulled further downward. Some are pulled down so hard, they end up with nothing.
Third, once we figure out what went wrong, we start putting things right. For each diagnosis, there will be a different prescription.
This means seeking solutions in a variety of fields: Job training. Therapy. Healthcare. Any area that needs to be built back up in a person’s life, and made whole again.
We also have a particular duty to help the men and women of our armed forces rejoin civilian life, to lead prosperous and happy lives. It is not enough to put a yellow ribbon on our cars. A nation that truly appreciates freedom will not forget the warriors who have sacrificed to protect it, when they return home.
Dozens of communities and three states have systems in place that have virtually ended veteran homelessness. We are going to continue that progress, and using the lessons we’ve learned to end homelessness for everyone.
Great steps have already been taken to reform the Veterans Administration, to give them the care they need without delay. Ensuring that veterans have access to housing is a top priority in my time at HUD: every week, I’m pleased to see more stories about state and local initiatives, connecting landlords and veterans through the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program.
There are also young people in need of aid. Some have fled abuse and broken homes, some have no parents to protect them, and some suffer in ways we cannot see. Too many end up being exploited instead of saved. That needs to change.
That’s why we’re posting a notice of funding availability for the second round of the Youth Homelessness Demonstration by early fall, for $43 million. Our nation’s vulnerable children, and those who care for them, deserve all the assistance we can offer.
Whatever a person’s story may be, our goal is to help them stand on their own again, in whatever way they need support.
Of course, some people—the most hurt, and the most vulnerable—will never stop needing our help. Our society must always be ready to provide it, especially from public/private partnerships, charities, or faith-based institutions, which are particularly effective.
But many can be fully rehabilitated, to lead independent lives. Not just as productive members of society, but as fulfilled, self-sufficient ones.
If we fail to get them there, we fail to truly lift up our fellow human beings. If we give men and women just enough to survive, but not the tools to flourish, we only serve them halfway. We trap them in a limbo of dependency, depriving them, and the nation, of their full potential.
If I may make an example from my own experience:
A hospital admits sick people so that they can get better. Some unfortunate patients cannot get better, so they must receive care for the rest of their lives. We have moral duty to serve them.
But if those with curable diseases are still in the hospital after months, or years, we’d say those doctors aren’t really helping people to get better. They’re not doing their job.
In the same way, we cannot be satisfied to throw resources at services which merely subsidize homelessness. We need to cure it, so men and women may one day “leave the hospital” and find a permanent home, and permanent healing.
We might live in times of great controversy and political disagreement, but I know the desire to end homelessness is genuinely shared by people on both sides of the aisle.
Serving the vulnerable is not just a Democrat issue. Maximizing results and lowering cost is not just a Republican one. These are concepts that must lean upon each other, together, to stand.
Because passion without impact is all heart and no brain, and efficiency without charity is all brain, and no heart.
And, as a doctor, I strongly recommend having both.
People in this field—people in this room—have accomplished remarkable things. I am mindful of all the good work done by your organizations.
There are centuries of collected experience here today. In the years ahead, I hope to learn from it, and learn from you.
As our nation keeps building upon the lessons of the past, your countrymen turn to you for leadership and partnership.
You have my gratitude: for what you have done, and what we are going to accomplish.
Together, we will work toward a time when no family is without a home, and every American may see the glory of a summer sky as one community.
A time, as the triumphant song goes, when “even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.”