The Obama administration recently outlined its plans for ending homelessness through reforming health care and improving affordable housing.
“We already know that simply having 46 million uninsured people in this country clearly contributes to persistent and widespread homelessness,” US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan told a packed Renaissance Hotel Grand Ballroom during his keynote address at the National Alliance to End Homelessness Annual Conference.
“In addition, health care costs are the leading cause of personal bankruptcies — with almost half of all foreclosures caused in part by financial issues stemming from medical costs.”
Donovan and US Health and Human Services (HSS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius are exploring possible points of symbiosis between the agencies, from preventing unnecessary institutionalization to designing healthier, more livable communities.
The HUD secretary cited two articles and an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association to show how better housing could improve both health outcomes and cut costs.
One article, centered around a supportive housing project in Seattle, showed hospital visits dropped by a third in the year after participants were admitted to the 1811 Eastlake center. This resulted in their Medicaid costs falling by more than 40%. Another study in Chicago had similar results.
Donovan, the former head of the New York City with more than 20 years of experience advocating for the homeless, said the federal government plans to “get back into the business of affordable rental housing.” He pointed to President Obama’s Recovery Act and HUD’s Fiscal Year 2010 budget as evidence that the government intends to avoid negligence as seen in early 1980’s, when the nation’s stock of affordable housing plummeted.
“You and I both know that before there was a foreclosure crisis in this country, there was an affordable rental housing crisis,” he said. “And it’s still going on.”
Donovan told the audience that he will make ending homelessness a measure of success for all HUD programs. Moreover, he called for greater cooperation between HUD and other local, state and federal agencies. Aside from HHS, the HUD secretary said his department is exploring ways to cooperate with the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program and the US Department of Education to assure veterans and children have access to safe, affordable housing.
Donovan concluded his address by returning to an analogy between the end of homelessness and the 1969 lunar landing, a goal that once seemed impossible. He then asked attendees to remain committed.
“I believe that if we can spend trillions of dollars addressing these problems the wrong way — surely in America, with government working in partnership with the private sector, we can summon the strength and the courage to do it the right way and achieve the results we all want for our country,” he said. “And if I know anything from working with so many of you over these many years, it’s that the experience of homeless housing and service providers is not only ready for prime-time in the greatest public policy debate of our generation — it is absolutely essential to making sure that debate reaches its right and just conclusion.”
Responses to Donovan’s speech were mostly positive.
“His remarks were really invigorating,” said Jessica Beth Gustin, a law student and legal intern at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “The connection he made between health and housing is so crucial and has been missing.”
Gustin’s colleague, Raquel Oriol, a Bill Emerson Hunger Fellow at NLCHP, was happy to hear Duncan is pushing for partnerships with the private sector. However, Oriol said she would have liked the secretary to discuss President Obama’s pledge to end hunger in America by 2015.