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William H. Gates Sr. - National Conference on Ending Family Homelessness

February 7, 2008
Prepared remarks by William H. Gates Sr.

Thank you, Dan.

It is customary at the beginning of speeches like this—the ones when an influential national group like NAEH has picked your city for an important meeting—to thank the organizers for the honor.

But this is different.

I have lived here all my life, and it is no honor to be known for how many mothers in our community put their children to bed in the backseats of their cars. It is not my privilege to acknowledge that my hometown is also home to hundreds of boys and girls who don’t know where they are going to sleep tonight.

Our city takes pride in what Seattleites have accomplished. We made the home computer a standard appliance. We made virtually every book in the universe available with a few keystrokes. We even convinced you to spend $4 on a cup of coffee.

But one thing we haven't done is provide the most basic shelter for all our families. In King County, we did our one-night homeless count of unsheltered persons a few weeks ago, and the number went up, not down.

And that is our shame. Not our honor, not our privilege.

The fact is, Seattle is not alone in this failure. Across the country, we lose more affordable housing every year than we build. There is not a single county in the United States—out of more than 3,000—where a working parent who earns minimum wage can afford rent. That is the problem we are up against.

But the work you do—and the work we do at the foundation—is predicated on the notion that even the hardest problems are susceptible to effort and intellect.

The point is this: There are solutions. We just saw how they work in the video. Many of you in this room should share the credit for developing new and innovative ways to do this difficult work. We can make a society in which fewer families become homeless, in which families that do become homeless don't stay that way for long, and in which homeless families that become stable stay stable—permanently. It’s not easy. But we are resilient, and we are in this fight for as long as it lasts.

Back when the foundation was getting started, Bill and Melinda asked me to help them think about where to focus their giving. It was more than 10 years ago. Bill and Melinda knew their philanthropy would serve the principle that all lives have equal value. They were working with public libraries to set up Internet connections, and they were already thinking seriously about Global Health. But they also felt a strong sense of responsibility to people in this community that had given them so much. What could they do to address the inequities here at home?

There were dozens, maybe hundreds, of possible interventions. So we studied the options. And when we had whittled them down to the first short list, homelessness wasn’t on it.

It was the faculty at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work that asked us to take a second look. They told us what we didn't know about family homelessness—that as many as 20,000 children in our state sleep in cars, or tents, or on relatives' floors. They also told us about the creativity in the field—the advances you all have been making for years. In short, they told us that we didn’t have to accept the problem—that we could start helping to solve it.

So seven years ago, we joined up with dozens of great partners to start a program called Sound Families. Many of the partners are in the audience today, and I cannot say enough about how inspiring it has been to work with you. I spent my professional life as an attorney, so I hadn’t seen too much cooperation until you showed me.

I hope it doesn't sound hollow when I talk about partnerships. Because I know Sound Families depended on the City of Seattle from the moment of its conception all the way through. Leaders from the mayor to representatives of the Office of Housing served as thought partners, staffers, intermediaries, grants managers, and all-around cheerleaders when we really didn’t think we were going to meet our goals.

I also know that if the local housing authorities hadn’t pitched in to help us with Section 8 vouchers way back at the beginning, Sound Families would have failed. As you know, transitional housing assumes a home to transition to, and our partners turned that risky assumption into something homeless families could rely on.

So when I talk about partnerships, I do it as a representative of an organization that has been saved by its partners.

The idea behind Sound Families was to build 1,500 units of supportive housing, and we are proud to say we reached that goal. What's more, we found that the model of transitional housing plus services worked for most families. Two thirds of the families that entered the program found permanent housing. We have done a pretty thorough evaluation of the program over the years, and we learned lessons about what works—and some lessons about what doesn't work. I encourage you to get a lot more detail by reading the final report, which is posted on our Web site.

We are proud of Sound Families, but we have more work to do.

Even though the program helped thousands of children, family homelessness in the region has gone up over the last seven years.

Our goal now is to help individual families and make a real dent in the whole problem. We are excited about the direction we are headed in our region. We will be borrowing our ideas from all of you.  We will adapt them from the exemplary programs we heard about in the video.  And we will take some directly from the evaluations we did of the Sound Families program.

Most of all, we will draw from the most important lesson we have learned during our years of work in the field.

What we learned is this: Homelessness is not really the problem we need to end.

I know that sounds pretty bizarre, especially since I am talking to the National Association to End Homelessness. But we think it is a crucial insight.

Homelessness is a symptom.

Homelessness is part of a massive, ever-changing constellation of problems.

In short, people become homeless for a reason—usually for more than one reason. Sometimes homelessness happens because a woman leaves an abusive relationship and can't get a job that pays enough to support her family. Sometimes it happens because a man suffers from alcoholism. We learned from Sound Families that homeless families need help addressing all the reasons—the crisscrossing tangle of crises that put millions of families in this country on the very edge of destitution.

The same lesson holds for our social system in general. It is designed as if people have one problem at a time. They have an employment problem, period, so they get routed to a jobs program. But real life doesn't work that way. What about their high school dropout problem? Their health problem? And, yes, their housing problem?

Let me give you an example of what I am talking about. It's a story about a woman named Renee and her four-year-old son Christopher, who live here in the area. Renee didn't have a homelessness problem, not at first. The problem was that she married a physically abusive man who beat her.

So she fled to a domestic violence shelter. But there wasn't room for her and Christopher. And there were no resources for her there, either—no person with the information or the authority to tell her where she could go. On her own, Renee found her way to a family shelter, but it couldn't take her in because the staff there was rightfully worried that her husband might come to find her. By now, as a consequence of her original problem, she also had a homelessness problem.

Naturally, we tend to think about Renee and Christopher’s ordeal from our point of view. They were turned away from the first shelter because it didn't have enough beds. The second shelter had to guarantee the safety of all the families staying there. It makes perfect sense. Everybody is doing the best job they can with limited resources.

But think about it from Renee and Christopher's point of view, from the customers' point of view. They don't need to know the institutional prerogatives that make the system run the way it does. They shouldn't have to worry about jurisdictional boundaries. They're just looking for a safe place to sleep. We need to be able to give that to them.

Renee got on the Section 8 wait list. But you all know how long that takes. She moved from an emergency shelter to a friend's trailer to transitional housing. She is still waiting for a permanent home. And a steady job to help her pay the rent. The so-called safety net didn't catch Renee and Christopher. In fact, it trapped them like a spider web.

There are countless examples along those lines. The woman who is behind on the rent but can't get help because, technically, she’s not homeless yet. And there is a reason for that. Our job is to help homeless people, so that's what we do. But isn’t it a better policy to prevent them from becoming homeless in the first place?

The man who can't get housing because he doesn't have an income. Again, there are no villains here. If you own an apartment building, you need your tenants to pay something. But the ones who can’t pay still need a place to sleep.

Sometimes, the system seems to be at cross-purposes with itself.

So how do we attack the whole problem? We need to weave a new safety net. It needs to be bigger, so we can cast it wide. It needs to be finer, so nobody slips through it.

The first thing we need to do is get more money into the system. That is perfectly clear. We need more affordable housing, more resources to help people increase their income. Because the best safety net in the world doesn’t save anybody if the families caught by it have no place to go.

We also need more resources for services like drug treatment programs, domestic violence counseling, child care, and job training. If we expect to give people the help they deserve, we have to be willing to pay for it. It is that simple.

It is that simple, but it is also complicated. If it were easy to get the resources we need, we would already have them. That's why we need to think more about how to encourage more public investment in affordable housing and other social services.

The Gates Foundation and other philanthropies need help from you to figure out how we can best serve this cause. We don't have plans to build housing across the country or pay for all of the needed services; we don't believe that's a sustainable approach for foundations to take on our own. As large as the Gates Foundation is, our money represents a small fraction of what it is going to take to do the job, compared to how much the government spends on these issues. Still, we see the problem, and we want to continue our conversation with you about solving it together.

And as we fight like hell for funding, we also need to look in the mirror. We have to ask ourselves how we can improve the way we use the money we do have. We need to change the system so that our customers understand it. We need to design it for them, not for us.

Specifically, that means being more comprehensive and coordinated. These aren't sexy ideas, but they are the key to making social services work for the people who need them. We have to collect data and then share it with each other so we can match the right people with the right services. The homelessness folks have to work with the workforce development folks, because so many homeless people need job training. They have to work with the health care folks, because you can't work if you’re sick, and you can't pay rent if you can't work. The list goes on. Everybody needs to work with the community college folks, because education is one of the keys to success.

Success means giving our customers the help they need, not the help we happen to be able to offer. Giving them help they can use, not a series of rules to follow.

Imagine what a safety net that works might look like. Renee shows up at the domestic violence shelter, and she goes straight to the system's intake expert. That intake expert has real-time access to information about every open bed in the region, and what each program's eligibility requirements are. Renee and Christopher are referred immediately to a safe shelter suited to their situation. Intake experts also determine that Renee needs help with child care, transportation and job training, and they help Renee get those services. Within 30 days of entering the shelter, Renee and Christopher have moved in to a permanent housing unit.

This story may sound like wishful thinking—especially to many of us here in Washington state—but in a few places around the nation, such as those you saw in the video, results such as these are actually within reach. With this kind of approach—and the money to back it up—Renee and Christopher have a chance to live the life they deserve. They have not only ended their homelessness problem. They have put themselves back on a track toward success.

All of you have been fighting homelessness in its many facets for years, even decades.  We salute your work, your passion and your determination. But the truly comprehensive and coordinated responses required are, for most of us, new. Some of you have been working towards a new way of doing business together for many years. Others have begun to test these approaches in your communities for the first time. Now it's time for us to take them seriously by making them the standard across the country.

When that happens, we will prove that homelessness is a problem with a solution. That we can make a society in which fewer families become homeless, in which families that do become homeless don't stay that way for long, and in which homeless families that become stable stay stable—permanently.

So I'd like to close by asking you to do a few things. While you're here at this conference, would you have one new conversation with your colleagues about coordinating to build a more comprehensive system? I don't just mean working together when the opportunity presents itself. I mean making new connections with new partners so you can offer new services like prevention and rapid re-housing. Have that conversation about something you have never before dared raise with your colleague—something exciting and different.

I also ask that when you get back home, you initiate a conversation with a potential partner about a hole in your safety net and how you can work together to patch it up.

Finally, I ask that—as stretched as you already are—you dedicate resources to building the infrastructure that will support a comprehensive, coordinated system. In my career, I learned that unglamorous work doesn’t get done unless you set aside money and people to do it.

So please think about how to dedicate a staff position to integrating all the fine work you are already doing, so you can leverage each other instead of duplicating efforts and losing precious time and energy. And please earmark funds to collecting good data so we know exactly what people need and exactly what resources are available.

Doing it right takes courage. You have to acknowledge how sweeping this problem you're up against really is. You have to admit what you don't know. You have to work with a lot of people who have strong ideas you may not share.

But you are determined people. And I am confident that you will one day have the honor and the privilege of saying you were on the front lines of a new movement that proved your toughest critics wrong and surprised even yourselves. You will be able to say you were part of the movement that finally made homelessness a problem our society refused to accept.

Thank you.

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