Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. (by Eli Meir Kaplan)

It really started for me as a kid growing up in New York City in the 1970s. That was the time that homelessness really exploded in New York and around the country. I still have memories of walking past families sleeping on the street on my way to school. And it was more than just watching individual families suffer. There was also a real sense at that time that our cities were dying literally. In 1977 as an 11-year-old, I went to the World Series game at Yankee Stadium, where Howard Cosell had the cameras pan across, past the outfield, to all the buildings that were burning in the South Bronx and announce to this huge television audience across the country, “Ladies and gentleman, the Bronx is burning.” That neighborhood around Yankee Stadium lost 75 percent of its population in 10 years. President Jimmy Carter visited a street right near Yankee Stadium just a few weeks after the World Series and compared it to Dresden after World War II.

Really for me, that’s where this interest in housing [comes from] — not just in making sure that folks had a roof over their heads but also a deeper sense of how do we preserve the vitality, the incredible strength that cities bring us. I grew up in New York; I loved that city, and watching it crumbling literally and figuratively before my eyes was a pretty powerful influence in my ending up in this line of work.

You absolutely have to be reminded [that] these are real faces, real stories behind every one of these numbers and every one of these programs. It is too easy in these jobs for human beings to become numbers on a page or statistics in a report. One of the signature efforts is that now almost every single community in the country counts their homeless during a single week in January. And so I went out this year in D.C. in January as part of that count. There is nothing like spending time talking to the homeless. Spending a night talking to the folks we’re trying to help — to hear their real stories about the challenges they have, about how they ended up there — frankly, to realize, particularly in this economic crisis, that those individuals, those families — are us.

Watching the crisis [there] was just a sense of real anger about what this housing finance system had done to devastate communities. I talked about those neighborhoods in the South Bronx — you wouldn’t recognize those neighborhoods today from where they were in 1977, but this foreclosure crisis threatens to take them back to those days. We cannot let our communities, our families, go back to those days. Home ownership has been a key gateway to the middle class, and we need to rebuild that confidence. That’s been the focus. It’s not something that we could ever solve in a week or a month. But I keep remembering those neighborhoods I saw as a kid.