Two individuals, Jones and Gann, received the same treatment for a common condition— homelessness—and had two very different experiences. What happened?
Homeless advocates harken back to a time when homelessness as seen today—a widespread, visible, and growing crisis—didn’t exist. The poor have always been among us, but it wasn’t until the early 1980s that modern homelessness was born out of a perfect storm: a country in recession, the rapid loss of affordable housing, and the deinstitutionalization of mental healthcare.
Today on any given night, about 550,000 people in the United States sleep on a street, at an emergency shelter, or in a transitional housing program. The demographics of the homeless population are shifting: More than 40 percent are families, a figure unseen since the Great Depression. The majority are single, uneducated young mothers with children under the age of 18.
In alarm, the Clinton administration tripled funding for homeless service programs, but the more new programs appeared, the more homelessness continued to spread; the more well-meaning volunteers rolled up sleeves to pass out soup and bread, the longer the lines of hungry people seemed to grow.
Philip Mangano, former “homeless czar” in President George W. Bush’s administration, was one of many volunteers feeding the homeless in Boston in the ’80s. Mangano was a fast-talking music agent in LA when he watched a film depicting the life of St. Francis of Assisi. He was so moved by the friar’s service to the poor that he quit his agency and signed up to man Boston’s first bread line since the Depression.
There, Mangano befriended hundreds of people who were homeless and gradually realized that many “good-intentioned” services and programs were simply “shuffling [the homeless] from one program to another.” As a self-proclaimed Christian abolitionist, Mangano calls homelessness “a moral wrong, a spiritual wrong, a policy wrong, an economic wrong. What do you do with a wrong? You try to right it.”
After Bush appointed him head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Mangano demanded more and better data: What do the numbers say? What works, what doesn’t? His research revealed that each chronically homeless individual uses about $30,000 to $50,000 in taxpayer funds per year by cycling in and out of emergency rooms, hospital beds, detox programs, jails, and psychiatric institutions. He also heard success stories from a nonprofit in New York that was providing no-strings-attached housing to chronically homeless people—the first known “Housing First” model.
Mangano soon became the loudest evangelist for “Housing First.” With the same unflagging passion and charisma that scored him deals in Hollywood, Mangano persuaded executives, mayors, and governors to join the “Housing First” campaign. His pitch always included the bottom line: Yes, the initial cost of housing people is high, but leaving people on the streets is more expensive in the long run. “Housing First,” he insisted, is the smarter investment.
Under Mangano’s direction, he challenged cities, counties, and states to come up with 10-year strategic plans to eradicate chronic homelessness: “Don’t tell me how many meals you’ve served—how many people have you housed?” In doing so he also advocated shutting down shelters and transitional housing to create more housing. Today as president and CEO of the American Round Table to Abolish Homelessness, Mangano continues his crusade to abolish homelessness through “Housing First.”