SEATTLE- For nearly two decades, Philip Mangano dedicated himself to helping people on the streets the best way he knew how-shelters, soup kitchens, bread lines. He traces the call of compassion to Christian thinkers like St. Francis of Assisi and Simone Weil. But in recent years, now as executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), Mangano has adopted more innovative solutions and demanded quantifiable results for his efforts. He traces that calling to President George W. Bush.
In a 2003 budget address before Congress, Bush called for ending chronic homelessness, a bold vision that Mangano says reshaped the national conversation. "He changed the verb of homelessness," Mangano recalled during a recent two-hour interview with WORLD. "After 20 years of managing the crisis, the intent now was ending the disgrace."
That shift in federal objectives brought increased financial resources and ignited political will at every level of government. If Bush lit the torch, Mangano ran with it.
Mangano, now the so-called homelessness czar, launched a campaign challenging elected officials at the local level to build coalitions of stakeholders interested in getting people off the street. Police officers, park directors, pastors, librarians, and scores of other community leaders responded in droves. Mayors throughout the country began to believe that the problem of chronic homelessness is solvable. And multi-year plans to accomplish what was once thought impossible sprang up like wildfire.
Today, more than 300 different plans are moving forward in about 500 communities across the nation. And the numbers are in: Homelessness decreased 12 percent nationally from 2005 to 2006, and dozens of cities have reported even more dramatic drops for 2007.
In Portland, Ore., the number of homeless persons plummeted 70 percent last year. In Nashua, N.H., it fell 64 percent; in Philadelphia and Miami, 50 percent; in San Francisco, 38 percent.
Such figures represent the first quantifiable reductions in homelessness in more than a quarter century. So just what kind of magic formula is occupying these local plans? No magic, Mangano says, just good sense: "What we had been doing in homelessness for 20 years was largely based on conjecture, anecdote, and hearsay. What we've learned is that if good intentions, well-meaning programs, and humanitarian gestures could get the job done, homelessness would have been history decades ago."
The new strategy abandons stereotypes and generalizations in favor of hard data. Recent studies from most of the country's major urban centers, and a smattering of small and midsize municipalities, testify that a counterintuitive approach dubbed "housing first" is highly effective in getting chronically homeless persons off the street.
But is simply giving the homeless homes a true solution to the root problem, or merely a neat statistical trick to hide the symptoms of human sin? Critics of the housing-first concept say it incentivizes bad behavior and spares deadbeats from the just consequences of their actions. But Mangano is quick to challenge that assertion: "We're trying to fill in the social capital that most of these people didn't have in life. Many, because of disabilities, were shunned."
Housing first is not housing alone. The approach includes an array of specified services meant to help people develop the social and vocational skills needed to function productively. Many of the homeless suffer from mental illness or are enslaved to drugs or alcohol. Attempting to treat sickness or addiction without the stability of a permanent residence is nearly impossible.
Of course, the mere addition of a stable address provides no guarantee of successful treatment, either. The history of homelessness in America recounts the tragic failure of deinstitutionalization in the 1960s when government sought to relocate the clinically insane from the back wards of mental hospitals into free housing. Without proper accountability and care, thousands of people stopped taking their prescribed medications, wandering onto the streets and into a system of soup kitchens and bread lines that could not help them.
That painful past convinces some longtime street relief workers that housing for the chronically homeless simply won't stick. Mangano encounters such resistance regularly as he tours the country advocating for his approach. He dismisses the charge with data-namely, that 85 percent of the chronically homeless do in fact remain in their new home provided regular care and aid are available.
But what of the costs? Why should governments ask taxpayers to fund a controversial program with which many might take exception? Mangano again runs to his numbers: According to USICH, the annual public cost for a chronically homeless individual living on the street ranges from $35,000 to $100,000 in emergency health care, law enforcement, shelter programs, and the like. The annual public cost for an individual in the housing-first program stands between $13,000 and $25,000.
That surprising comparison casts Mangano's vision as the fiscally responsible option, which has helped convince the Bush administration to increase federal funding for combating homelessness every year since taking office. The proposed 2009 budget allocates more than $5 billion toward the cause, almost double the amount of 2001.
Mangano says the extra federal funds are a temporary necessity until housing first can fully replace outdated public initiatives that still demand money for little result. In the interim, as minds slowly change, government is funding the new and the old approaches.
Among the more controversial government-funded, housing-first projects, 1811 Eastlake in Seattle rewards 75 of the worst drunks in the area with housing in an $11 million downtown facility. Tenants of the building pay little to no rent and are allowed to drink in their rooms (see "Bunks for drunks," Oct. 14, 2006). That kind of operation may reduce ugly statistics, clean up city streets, and perhaps even save taxpayer dollars, but it will not help anyone turn from the self-destructive decisions that first created the problem.
The question of personal responsibility is no simple matter. Conservatives who often are quick to place blame for homelessness entirely at the feet of the homeless are as much ideologues as the political left when it shifts the blame to small-government policies and social inequality. In reality, some of the homeless have earned their plight, and others have not.
For his part, Mangano avoids partisan rhetoric: "People always ask me, 'Are you a Democrat, a Republican, what are you?' I tell them, 'I'm an abolitionist.'" But the agenda associated with that moniker indicates a particular worldview. Mangano sees homelessness as a moral outrage perpetrated by society on those least able to defend themselves.
Casting himself in the mold of William Wilberforce and Frederick Douglass, he denounces the very existence of homelessness in the United States-as though a modern and wealthy society ought to establish systems that preclude any individual from wrestling with the consequences of sin. For Wilberforce and Douglass, condemnation of sin was at the center of their message.
To whom does Mangano direct his call for repentance? "I'm not so presumptuous as to call anybody to repent," he said. "But as a result of this national movement we have seen over and over all across our country churches repenting in the sense of what that word really means, which is to turn 180 degrees. We've seen churches move from simply making a charitable response-the soup kitchen, the bread line, the drive-by feeding that suburban churches enjoy doing-to being part of the solution."
But the question remains: What does it mean to solve homelessness? For Mangano, it's about moving people from sidewalks to housing and keeping them there. For churches committed to the biblical mandate for compassion, the agenda must also include accountability and heart change. And of that, no church should ever repent.