Richard Cho’s Columbus House Annual Dinner Remarks

December 18, 2019

Good morning. I am so thrilled and honored to be with you here this morning.

This Annual Meeting is a special event for several reasons. First, because it gives us a chance to reflect on and celebrate the amazing work of Columbus House over the last year.

It’s also personally special for me as a chance to honor the accomplishments of one of my own heroes in the fight to end homelessness—the great Alison Cunningham. (But I’ll save my gushing over Alison for later in the program.)

It’s also happens to coincide with my own one-year anniversary serving as the CEO of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness—a role, by the way, for which I have Alison to thank (or blame, depending on the day) as she led the Board Search Committee that ultimately resulted in my hire.

And while I’ve been at CCEH only one year, next year—the year 2020—will mark my 20th anniversary working in the effort to end homelessness. Twenty years. I say that with a mixture of joy and shame.

Joy in that those 20 years have allowed me to know and work with so many wonderful leaders, visionaries, and warriors—like Alison–working to end this human rights tragedy of the 20th Century that we call homelessness.

But also shame because it means that homelessness has persisted for decades. It was around for roughly 20 years when I began my professional life and here I am 20 years later.

But I stand here today to tell you all that we must not and will not let homelessness persist for another 20 years, or even 10 years. We can and we will end homelessness in our state. And we will do so in the next few years.

Before I explain to you why I believe that we can end homelessness in Connecticut, I first want us to recognize that the very fact that we have annual meetings and celebrate work anniversaries is itself a luxury. Marking time and occasions in this way is a luxury that we—the “housed”—have and that we, frankly, take for granted.

A gentleman experiencing homelessness recently said to me that the first thing you lose when you become homeless is your name. But the second thing you lose is time.

Now, I have been fortunate enough to have never experienced homelessness myself, so I can only guess at what he means. What I understood him to mean is that when you lose a sense of where you will sleep, where to go during the day, or whether you will eat, you begin lose all sense of time. Hours blend into days, days blend into weeks, weeks blend into months, months into years.

I also think what he meant by losing time was losing hope. After all, what is hope but having a feeling that things will get better in the future. When you have no future, you focus on the immediate moment because it is all you have. And the longer you spend homeless, the more your present looks like the days just passed. No change, no more hope, no time.

I don’t know how many of you can relate to this feeling on a personal level, I ask how many of you can relate to this in our own work to address homelessness. Haven’t we ourselves in the fight against homelessness lost our own sense of change, our sense of hope, and our sense of time?

For so many decades, we provided homeless services day after day and night after night, and the need was always there and only seemed to grow. And we could see no end in sight to that need, no change, no hope, no time.
True, we saw victories and progress as we developed new programs and models like supportive housing, medical respite, rapid re-housing, Critical Time Intervention, I could go on. And we held onto a vague hope that somehow those programs and interventions held the potential to not only help the relatively small number of people that they served, but could add up to a true end to homelessness. Someday, if could only we took them to scale.
So we inched along, day after day, night after night, program after program, grant after grant. Still losing a sense of time. And before we knew it, we had let homelessness go on for nearly four decades.

Now just as I’ve spoken with people who have lost a sense of time because of homelessness, I’ve also had the privilege of speaking to people whose homelessness had been ended and who were able to obtain a stable home. I’ve heard them talk about how their hope has been restored. How they are making plans for the future. How they now celebrate the anniversaries of their housed dates or even just celebrating birthdays again—whether their own or their loved ones’. You hear how they have once again found time.

Life, for them, has begun again. And day 1 of that life was the day they obtained a stable home.

I’m very pleased to share that just a few weeks ago, CCEH received a $2.5 million one-time grant award from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to support our state’s work to end family homelessness in Connecticut. That grant comes from a fund called the Day One Families Fund. I learned the reason why Jeff Bezos called it the Day One fund. He said, “I talk often about the importance of maintaining a Day 1 mentality. It’s always Day 1, and I work hard to apply that mindset to everything I do…It’s one of the fantastic aspects of human nature that we humans never stop looking for (and finding!) ways to improve things. Our lives are better than our great grandparents’ lives, and their lives were better than their great grandparents’ lives before them. If our own great grandchildren don’t have lives better than ours, something has gone very wrong. Where’s the good in the world, and how can we spread it? Where are the opportunities to make things better? These are exciting questions.”

Now receiving those grant funds were exciting in and of themselves. CCEH will be using these funds to scale up flexible financial assistance for families with children as part of shelter diversion and rapid exit programs. And by the way, we are not satisfied with a one-time grant of $2 million and so we are working to leverage additional investments with the potential for creating an endowment that would, in perpetuity, generate up to $1 million annually in flexible financial assistance to divert or rapidly exit families from homelessness.
But as exciting as it was to receive this money, it was just as exciting to adopt that Day One mentality. I think that is a mentality that we, as the coalition working to end homelessness, must bring to our work.

I wonder if we ourselves—as Columbus House and a coalition of committed people and organizations working to end homelessness—are at a moment when we too must regain our sense of time.I wonder if we have arrived at our own Day 1 moment, a moment when we can finally stop tallying up the days and months and years that we’ve been providing homeless services, but instead, look to a future with no homelessness. We are not at Day 14,600 of providing homeless services, but rather are at Day 1 of an end to homelessness.

I ask all of you this morning, are we at that Day 1 moment? Are we close to an end to homelessness?

I believe the answer is YES. Why?

I believe that we are at Day 1 because we have never known more what is needed to end homelessness. We have a full array of programs and interventions—supportive housing, affordable housing, rental subsidies, rapid re-housing, Critical Time Intervention, Rapid Exit, shelter diversion, and medical respite—all rooted in the Housing First philosophy that holds that everyone is houseable and that housing is the foundation for success in all aspects of life.

And by the way, Columbus House has always been the vanguard in developing and improving all of these interventions. They were at Day 1 in providing quality shelter, they were at Day 1 in the creation of supportive housing, medical respite, FUSE, the Social Innovation Fund, rapid re-housing, re-entry services for people leaving prisons. I believe that we are at Day 1 because of the work of Columbus House.

I believe that we are at Day 1 because we now have a coordinated system—known as the Coordinated Access Network system—so that people experiencing a housing crisis do not have to navigate their own way through a dizzying array of shelters and programs to get help, but have a clear place to go to be assessed and matched to the right types of assistance. Last year, our state’s 211 Infoline fielded over 75,000 calls for shelter or homeless assistance. Our CANs met in person with and assessed over 13,000 households.

We are at Day 1 because we are now helping households on the verge of homelessness to actually avoid homelessness through housing problem solving counseling and flexible financial assistance. In the last year, our state diverted over 5,000 households from shelter and into safe and stable housing. For families with children, our rates of diversion from shelter are at 70%.

We are at Day 1 because we are re-housing more people out of homelessness than ever before. Last year, providers working as part of our CAN system helped to re-house over 2,700 households who were in shelters or on the streets into stable housing.

We are at Day 1 because we have continued to achieve steady reductions in homelessness—32% decline overall since 2007 and a 40% decline in sheltered homelessness since 2012.

Most of all, I believe we are at Day 1 because we can now envision what it looks like to have an end to homelessness in our state. And what that looks like is a fully functioning, fully resourced housing crisis resolution system that can prevent people facing a housing crisis from falling further into homelessness and ensuring that anyone who falls into homelessness in re-housed in a matter of days, not weeks or months. That is what we mean by making homelessness rare, brief, and non-recurring.

The point at which our housing crisis resolution system—which we refer to our as our Coordinated Access Network system—is fully functioning and fully resourced is when we will achieved an end to homelessness. And reaching that point is within our grasp.

But we have more work to do to get there.

Still today in Connecticut, we estimate that we have roughly 3,000 people on any given night who are experiencing homelessness. While we divert over 5,000 households from shelter that means still over 6,000 households (roughly 8,000 people) still use homeless shelters every year. Homeless outreach teams report engagement with over 1,300 people over the course of the year. That is still far too many people for a state the size of Connecticut.

And while we are re-housing more people than ever, at any given time we have housing openings for only 1/7 of the people who are on our housing waitlists.

We need our system to be able to meet the needs of not just some of the people experiencing or on the verge of homelessness, but to meet the needs of all.

To do so, we must scale up the resource investments in our system. Henry Ford did not design the Model T and then put only enough gas in the tank to go 5 miles. Steve Jobs did not design the iPhone with a battery that only lasted 10 minutes. We’ve developed a system to make homelessness rare, brief, and non-recurring. We need government, philanthropy, and the private sector to fully invest in our system.

We now have roughly $10 million in investments from HUD to build out a full array of interventions for youth experiencing homelessness. With those resources, our statewide outcomes for youth are now outpacing those for families and individuals. We are diverting and re-housing more youth such that it is within our grasp to make homelessness rare, brief, and non-recurring for youth. But we need to fight to make sure that those investments continue at HUD.

And just as Jeff Bezos and HUD have been our fairy godmothers for families and youth, we need a fairy godmother for individuals, who represent the largest population of people experiencing homelessness and for whom we have the fewest targeted resources.

We must make our homeless response system work not just for those that happen to come to it, but also for people who need extra help in seeking services. Just as we created a coordinated system for accessing homeless services, we must also create a coordinated system of outreach to reach what appears to be a growing number of people who sleep outside, in tents, under bridges.

We must also make our system culturally responsive to the unique needs of various communities-communities of color, non-English speaking communities, immigrants, and refugee communities. Our system must engage with the leaders within those communities to be ambassadors of help.

We need to address the root causes of homelessness by reforming the systems and policies that contribute to the instability of communities. We know, for instance, that 20% of our state’s homeless population are people released from prisons and jails, many who have been caught on a revolving door between incarceration and homelessness for decades, some beginning at age 14 or 15.

We must address the fact that so many households continue to fall into homelessness because of the lack of access to jobs, fair wages, labor protections, and the continuing erosion of our social safety net. We must address the fact that so many households fall into homelessness because of predatory and illegal practices of landlords and housing owners, who threaten eviction without cause or standing.
We must address the fact that we are seeing a new generation of people over the ages of 55 who are falling into homelessness for the first time, many after having worked years but without savings, pensions, or health care.

We must address the ongoing bigotry, ignorance, and hatred that lead so many LGBTQ youth to be kicked out of their homes and fall into homelessness and victimization.

Our work ahead is clear and it is manifold. And I would be lying if I stood up here and said that our challenges are not great. Even now as I speak, there are some who are calling into question whether Housing First works and whether homelessness can be ended.

I stand here this morning telling you that I believe they are wrong. I stand here telling you that we are at Day 1 of an end to homelessness. I ask for your help in proving them wrong. I ask the help of Columbus House and for all of your help in bringing an end to homelessness.

Thank you all for your commitment and dedication.