I want to acknowledge the contribution members of the National Press Club make everyday to shedding light on the important issues facing our country.
Al and I began our careers in journalism working for the Nashville Tennessean – with me as a photographer and him as a journalist. We know that the media, and the words and images you convey, can touch the soul and motivate people to take action.
One of the first stories Al and I worked on together was about poverty and isolation in rural Tennessee. It focused on the lives of an 86-year-old man and his 83-year-old sister. While we reported the struggle of their daily lives, we also tried to capture their strength and dignity.
A picture I took for that piece is part of an exhibit on homelessness that I have spent the past year working on with the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the Corcoran Museum, and an extraordinary group of photographers. It will open later this week and follows an exhibit I worked on in 1988 that exposed the reality of homelessness in America.
Since 1988, our understanding about homelessness and our capacity to address it has deepened. Called The Way Home, this exhibition focuses on the solutions to homelessness found in communities all across America.
The sad truth is that even during this time of unprecedented hope and prosperity, many Americans do not see the fruits of our booming economy in their daily lives.
Too many children and families lack the health coverage they need to stay healthy and strong. Too many men and women lack the education and training they need to get good paying jobs, while others cannot make ends meet off of the wages they receive.
These challenges are coupled with the reality that at least 600,000 men, women and children are homeless on our streets each and every night. And millions more are at risk of becoming homeless.
Who are the homeless?
They are young children who should be dreaming about holiday toys and playing games instead of worrying about where they will sleep and what they will eat.
They are men and women who work all day and go to school at night to build a better life for themselves and their families but still cannot afford to put a roof over their heads.
They are veterans who put themselves in harms way to defend our democracy only to return home isolated from their communities and stranded on the streets.
And they are the mentally ill who cannot get the treatment and services they need to live full and productive lives.
This is an unacceptable condition that does not have to exist. We need to commit ourselves as individuals, as communities, and as a country to working together until everyone has a place to call home.
Make no mistake, this is a very tough issue. I understand the impulse to turn away from someone who is homeless and ignore a tragedy that can sometimes seem overpowering. When homelessness first evolved as a major problem in the 1970s it was easy for me to look away. The problem seemed so distant to me.
Things changed when I began seeing this issue through the eyes of my children. One day, I was driving my children home when we saw a homeless woman standing on the curb, talking to herself and gesturing. My children, who were much younger at the time, noticed her and wanted to know why she was there. When I explained to them that she was probably homeless, their immediate reaction was to take her home with us.
That evening, the family sat down together to figure out what we could do. Our kids started making sandwiches for a local soup kitchen, I founded an organization called Families for the Homeless and began volunteering with local homeless organizations, and Al took this issue on in the Senate, and later, in the White House.
Al co-sponsored the Mc Kinney Act that was the first piece of legislation mobilizing federal resources to address homelessness. Al and President Clinton, along with our Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Andrew Cuomo, have revolutionized the way communities respond to homelessness through our Continuum of Care strategy that combines federal resources with local innovation.
We are working with communities to protect the existing stock of affordable housing and find creative ways to increase the number of affordable units on the market. We are working to expand opportunities for low-income people and families to realize the American dream of owning their own home.
In this year's budget, we fought for and won more than $1 billion for the Continuum of Care, 60,000 new housing vouchers for low-income families, more housing assistance for the elderly and disabled, and rent subsidies for hundreds of thousands of low income families.
And we are committed to addressing the enduring legacy of housing discrimination. Discrimination may be subtler today than Jim Crow and enforced segregation, but make no mistake, it is just as real, just as destructive, and just as demeaning as it was a generation ago. We are committed to using the full power of the federal government to fight discrimination whenever and wherever it occurs.
To end homelessness, we must combine housing and equal opportunity with support and security. Put plainly, to finish the job we need decent wages, job training, child care, and physical and mental health care for people in need.
That is why I am proud we have fought for and won additional investments in child care and after school programs, children's health care and mental health services, and job training and job placement services. But we still need to increase the minimum wage and give millions of hard working Americans the pay raise they deserve.
I have traveled all around the country seeing the partnership between the federal government and local communities in action. I know it works.
Person by person, family by family, we can break the cycle – we can end homelessness in America.
But let me be clear: there is a right way to attack this issue, and a wrong way.
Some people have decided it is easier to impose sanctions that remove homeless people from the streets and get them out of sight rather than struggling with the hard business of developing solutions. Being poor and homeless is not a crime in America; it is a crisis requiring an immediate response and sustained action.
We need business leaders like Kevin Pickett and Cora King who responded to the need in Los Angeles by converting their motel into a residential facility for men with HIV/AIDS.
We need programs like the Douglas Gardens Community Mental Health Center and Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training.
We need people like Pat Letke, a Washington area homeless activist whom Al and I have come to know and love. She is one of the quiet heroes who saves lives by going out into the community, and working with the homeless day-in and day-out to help them turn their lives around.
A few years ago, Pat and I were traveling in an outreach van and met a Vietnam Veteran, Captain Kersh. He was very difficult to talk to and resisted our offers of help. I finally got through to him when I told him that my husband had served in Vietnam. Eventually, we convinced him to move into a temporary shelter.
After spending eight months in the shelter, he was doing so well that the staff decided to move him into transitional housing. But this new step frightened him and he ran away.
Pat and I found him back in the park. I gave him a note from Al that said: "Dear Captain Kersh: You should go back to Christ House and to Anchor Mental Health. This is a temporary housing solution for you. I am very proud of the progress you're making. Your fellow Vietnam veteran, Al Gore."
Later in the car ride on the way back to the program, Captain Kersh told Pat: "The Vice President of the United States, second in command of the whole country, is telling me I have to go to Anchor Mental Health. So I have to do it."
My philosophy in cases like this is, whatever works, do it!
Making a personal connection, and embracing people in distress, is one of the most effective ways to address this issue. Yes, government can and should do more. But government can never be a substitute for the security of a caring community, the warm embrace of a parent's love, or the power of one individual helping another.
Putting yourself on the line and reaching out to an individual in need can be discouraging and frustrating. When you deal with people who are ill and vulnerable, for every step forward you can sometimes take several steps back.
But it can also be highly rewarding. America was built on the values of community and responsibility – neighbors helping neighbors and families leaning on one another in times of need.
I believe our response to homelessness will help define our nation in the 21st Century.
The choice is clear.
We can be a bigger nation or a smaller one. We can embrace our troubled brothers and sisters or turn our backs on them. We can uphold the virtues of opportunity and inclusion or give into the vices of discrimination and isolation.
Throughout our history, Americans have lived up to our highest ideals by reaching deep within themselves and not doing the easy thing, but the right thing. Let's work together to help our fellow Americans find their way home and give our children and grandchildren an America equal to our best possibilities and our highest ideals.