NATIONAL PRESS CLUB LUNCH
ENDING HOMELESSNESS IN AMERICA
REMARKS FOR MRS. GORE
NOVEMBER 29, 1999
I want to acknowledge the contribution members of the National Press
Club make everyday to shedding light on the important issues facing our
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 focussed 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.