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Brief Lives June 2004

The Abolitionist

Bush's homelessness czar has some new ideas. Will liberals listen?

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."

Presented by

Douglas McGray is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the editor of Pop-Up Magazine.

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