Brief Lives June 2004

The Abolitionist

Bush's homelessness czar has some new ideas. Will liberals listen?
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With his dark tailored suits and his silver banker's coif, Philip Mangano looks like a liberal Democrat's idea of a conservative Republican's idea of an advocate for the poor—which, as the Bush Administration's homelessness czar, he happens to be. It is difficult to imagine Mangano fasting on the Capitol steps in a ratty Army-surplus jacket, as the late activist for the homeless Mitch Snyder once did, much less winning over the bleeding hearts in the nonprofit world by promising to apply the President's governing philosophy to their cause. But the latter is precisely what he does. "Any investment we make will be research-and-data-driven, performance-based, and results-oriented," I heard him declare on a cold March morning in New York City, to a gathering of social workers and housing advocates. It is something he has said again and again.

Mangano's message is as pure an example as can be found in government of "compassionate conservatism," which argues that traditionally liberal social concerns can be advanced through such conservative principles as responsibility and accountability. Though this was the centerpiece of George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, the "compassion agenda" heralded in the President's inaugural address seemed to dissolve in the face of partisanship, underfunding, and an all-consuming foreign policy. What was once a unifying theme is now likely to be invoked by his rival as evidence of Bush's hollowness. "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith, but has no deeds?" John Kerry recently asked an audience in Jackson, Mississippi, quoting from the Book of James. Mangano is nevertheless making a compelling case for compassionate conservatism in an unlikely field.

Widespread street homelessness is a relatively recent problem, at least in the modern era. It began to appear in the late 1970s, when the economy tanked, affordable housing began to disappear, and state hospitals, prodded by patients'-rights activists, released hundreds of thousands of the mentally ill into communities unprepared to receive them. Temporary shelters sprang up in church basements and neighborhood centers to address what was expected to be a short-term crisis. But the problem of homelessness persisted, and improvised measures became entrenched. After years of government neglect the Clinton Administration finally responded by tripling funding for programs to help the homeless and encouraging local organizations to offer a wide range of services, from counseling to health care. But, incredibly, the numbers of the homeless only increased. Today a patchwork of federal, state, city, and private money supports more than 40,000 programs—some cheap, others expensive; some staggeringly successful, others struggling; each with its own agenda; and few accountable for the work they perform. "We're trying to disrupt this ad hoc approach," Mangano says. "We're saying it needs to be strategic."

Homelessness is one of the few corners of public policy in which traditional liberal ideas have gone largely unchallenged. But Mangano believes that many professional activists, though well intentioned, have given up on ending homelessness. They have accepted the problem as intractable and fallen back on social work and handouts as a way to make broken lives more bearable. In doing so, he says, they have allowed "a certain amount of institutionalism" to take root. The Bush Administration proposes to solve the problem by beginning with the hardest cases: the 10 percent who are severe addicts or mentally ill, and consume half of all resources devoted to homeless shelters. Mangano believes that by moving these chronic cases into "supportive housing"—a private room or apartment where they would receive support services and psychotropic medications—the government could actually save money, and free up tens of thousands of shelter beds. The Bush Administration, spotting an opportunity to increase the return on its investment, is seeking to end chronic homelessness within ten years. Not only is this possible, Mangano insists, but it is common sense.

Mangano's forthright presence has divided a close-knit community. Perhaps not surprisingly, supportive-housing advocates and those who work with addicts and the mentally ill tend to be enthusiastic about his ideas. Outreach workers and emergency-shelter managers are divided. "There are people threatened ideologically and financially by this sort of change," explains Dennis Culhane, a professor of social-welfare policy at the University of Pennsylvania. "Absent new resources, shifting resources to permanent housing will take resources away from shelters."

Once Mangano had finished speaking on that March morning, the skeptics started probing for clues that he was providing intellectual cover for budget cuts, or cooking up a plot to get the smelly, crazy, drunken homeless out of sight and then ignore the rest. But his energetic sincerity disarmed them—to their evident dismay, in some cases. In desperation one brought up weapons of mass destruction, and Mangano rolled his eyes. "It's so refreshing to be back in New York, surrounded by Democrats," he cracked.

From the archives:

"Being Saint Francis" (August 2000)
Scenes from the discomfiting life of Francis of Assisi. By Valerie Martin

Mangano began his life as an advocate over a bag of popcorn. He was living in Los Angeles, working as an agent and managing members of Peter, Paul, and Mary and Buffalo Springfield, when the Franco Zeffirelli film Brother Son, Sister Moon, about Saint Francis of Assisi, prompted him to change his life. "[Saint Francis] fell sick, and during his sickness he had a spiritual experience," Mangano says. "He decided he wanted to live his life in a different way. He wanted to be in companionship with the poor." A few months later, on a flight from Los Angeles to Boston, Mangano resolved to do the same and "try and live out this Franciscan path."

He quit his job on the feast day of Saint Francis in 1980, and by the end of the following year was volunteering full time at the breadline at St. Anthony's Shrine in Boston. Over the next twenty years he became a well-known advocate, ultimately running the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance and collaborating with the National Alliance to End Homelessness, an organization chaired by Susan Baker (the wife of former Secretary of State James Baker), who helped sell the Bush Administration first on the idea of attacking chronic homelessness and then on Mangano as the man to lead the effort.

In conversation Mangano free-associates through the work of Einstein and Schopenhauer, Toynbee and Malcolm X, drawing lessons from each for the fight against homelessness. He is surely the only Bush official who carries a picture of the radical—and French—philosopher Simone Weil in his pocket. Above all, Mangano says, he takes inspiration from the abolitionists, whose precedent he often cites. "We had accommodated a social wrong in this country," he argues, stressing that do-gooders had sought to improve slaves' lives but failed to challenge the institution of slavery. "One could say that in 1859 the abolitionist cause was at its nadir. And yet six years later slavery was abolished."

Mangano believes that the breakthrough in the battle to abolish homelessness occurred only in the past five years, after Dennis Culhane determined that about one percent of the nation's urban population was homeless each year—more than anyone expected. Culhane studied this group and discovered that most were homeless for less than two months, but a hard-core minority—about 10 percent—stayed in shelters about two years, on average. "The emergency-shelter system," Culhane explained, "designed as a safety net, was serving as an expensive form of permanent housing." He measured just how much the chronic cases cost by tracking 10,000 mentally ill homeless people in New York, 5,000 of whom were placed in supportive housing and 5,000 of whom remained in shelters or on the street. It turned out that the first group cost the city no more, and probably less, than the second. A wave of similar studies reinforced his findings.

This hard-numbers approach amounted to a radical shift for advocates on behalf of the homeless, who had long focused on emotional appeals for greater attention and investment. Although sympathetic to their motivation, Mangano believes that political leaders have grown numb to sob stories, especially since the debate over welfare reform. "There were homeless advocates saying the sky is falling, the wolf is at the door, if welfare as we know it is changed," he says. None of it happened. Now "research is the new advocacy."

Mangano arrived in Washington, in 2002, well liked by both Republicans and Democrats. But skeptics wondered whether he could defend anti-homelessness programs from spending cuts, much less persuade a preoccupied conservative Administration and dozens of Democratic mayors to work together on an issue that doesn't register as a priority for voters. Through relentless travel and lobbying he has produced encouraging results.

On that March morning Atlanta's mayor, Shirley Franklin, an outspoken supporter of Mangano's, and Angela Aliota, a civil-rights lawyer in charge of San Francisco's chronic-homelessness plan, had traveled to New York to meet with city officials who were preparing to release their plan to battle homelessness, and to visit two programs that Mangano was eager to replicate elsewhere. We piled into a white cargo van and headed to East Harlem, where Pathways to Housing manages close to 500 apartments for the mentally ill. Its founder and executive director, Sam Tsemberis, is a man after Mangano's heart. When we arrived, he distributed copies of a new study in the American Journal of Public Health that tracks Pathways's performance. "Every program can bring forward people whose lives they saved," he explained. But that doesn't make them all equal. "If we didn't have scientific data, it would become a debate." Tsemberis has ministered to the so-called "treatment-resistant" for decades, and pioneered his "housing first" model after being struck by how many clients distrusted social workers and simply wanted a place to live. Offer them the apartment first, he believes, and you don't need to spend years, and service dollars, winning their trust. His success rates are high, his costs relatively low. "You can see why that resonated with the compassionate-conservative types," Culhane says. "It's exactly the kind of thing they've claimed they're looking for: sensible policy interventions that do right for the people and for the taxpayer."

Suspicion remains. Bill Clinton's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Andrew Cuomo, is a vocal critic who rejects the idea of targeting any one kind of homelessness over another. "You can't judge who's more needy," he says. A more widespread criticism, voiced even by some of Mangano's allies, contends that the Bush Administration's neglect of affordable housing undermines Mangano's very approach. They point out that Bush has proposed to cut more than $1 billion from the Section 8 rent-assistance program in 2005, and more in future budgets, which seems likely to raise rents for many families at risk of becoming homeless.

But Mangano believes that his campaign could inspire broader change, and points to England as an example. "Four years ago the Blair government—hardly the Bush Administration—proposed to reduce street homelessness dramatically in five years," he says. Critics scorned the idea and questioned its focus on a small minority of those in need. But in three years the numbers of the street homeless fell by two thirds. "As a result," Mangano says, "all these proposals around family homelessness that were stuck in Parliament, going nowhere—now they're all getting funded." Members of Parliament saw their investment working, he says, and became "remoralized."

As a Republican official in an election year, Mangano could have a hard time building bipartisan momentum. Most of the people he is working to persuade—mayors, social workers, program directors—are Democrats. In fact, some of his strongest supporters are pulling for John Kerry. But by this summer San Francisco and New York City, both struggling with large homeless populations, will release ten-year plans in formal alignment with Mangano's work; and Congress will soon get a chance to begin funding that work and putting it to the test.

Will liberals accept compassionate conservatism if it works? Mangano continues to campaign. "There were many abolitionists who wanted nothing to do with Lincoln," he says. "They wanted nothing to do with the war—they wanted to maintain their ideological purity as pacifists. [Others] understood that this war was a vehicle for ending slavery. They involved themselves politically with the Lincoln Administration to ensure that the war, which was specifically to preserve the Union, became the war to abolish this social evil." He laughs. "Lincoln, of course, was our first Republican President."

Douglas McGray is a writer based in Washington, D.C.
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Douglas McGray is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the editor of Pop-Up Magazine.

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