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Housing shorts

The federal and state governments and many nonprofits are pushing a homeless policy that works for some but not for many others

Housing shorts

Amber Gann (Greg Schneider/Genesis)

LOS ANGELES—The day Les Jones got his own room after being homeless for decades, he couldn’t sleep on the bed. He didn’t sleep on his bed the next day either, or the next. For an entire year after he no longer was homeless, Jones slept on the floor—the way he’d slept on the streets for more than half his adult life.

Jones always felt detached from the world. He tried to belong, but even as a little kid, he felt he was always doing things wrong. To punish himself, he hit himself over and over. As an adult, he heard voices. He looked for jobs but couldn’t find or keep them.

Today Jones is diagnosed with severe depression and schizo-affective disorder, but before, he wasn’t aware of his conditions. Instead, he decided he was a loser and a loner, and he slept on the streets in Los Angeles and became used to it. Then someone connected Jones to Step Up, a nonprofit organization that provides housing and services to chronically homeless individuals with mental health issues.

Now 61, Jones finally learned to sleep on a bed again. And he loves it, loves everything about having a home: being able to store his stuff without worrying about thieves, to lock a door, and best of all, to take a hot shower any time he wants. Since he moved into one of Step Up’s 200 permanent supportive housing units in 2006, he’s finally meeting his goals: He now teaches basic computer skills at Step Up and has earned his ham radio license—a goal he’s had for 40 years.

The chronically homeless are the most difficult to help among the homeless population, yet Jones found housing—and more incredibly, stayed housed. He’s a success story for a nationally touted homelessness assistance approach called “Housing First,” which prioritizes housing chronically homeless individuals as quickly as possible with no conditions attached. Unlike traditional methods such as shelters and transitional residences, “Housing First” does not require psychiatric treatment or sobriety. The idea is that the physical state of homelessness puts undue stress on a person’s psychiatric and physical health, so housing itself is a vital component of recovery.

Since the early 2000s, “Housing First” has become the most popular model for policymakers and service providers across the nation, with governments and nonprofits spending billions on the policy. Advocates tout it as an innovative yet simple solution to a complex issue: Give the homeless a home, and you immediately fix the “homeless” part of the issue. Finally, homelessness can end.

But “Housing First” hasn’t worked for everyone. Though originally meant for the chronically homeless, “Housing First” is now the preferred method for all homeless groups, including families.

Amber Gann was a 32-year-old single mother, fresh out of rehab and desperate to get her two daughters back from Child Protective Services, when a local service provider in San Diego offered her housing—no questions asked about her criminal record, her lack of employment, or her history of substance abuse. Gann was ecstatic: She would finally have a place of her own, and she made grand plans to lead a wonderfully normal life with her daughters.

That dream shattered within 24 hours after she moved into her new home. At about 4 a.m., Gann woke up to a crackling BANG! She rushed downstairs to see a SWAT team tossing stun grenades into her neighbor’s house. The police raided the place and removed packs of drugs, weapons, and ammunition.

Gann soon learned that half of the tenants in her building were “Housing First” recipients like her. Due to the low-barrier admissions policy of “Housing First,” people were free to do whatever they wanted behind closed doors. The building walls reeked of marijuana and meth and often shook with drunken parties and arguments. Through her daughters, Gann learned that one neighbor was dealing drugs and prostituting his 11-year-old daughter out to his friends.

It was a terrible environment for children and a former heroin addict. Gann began drinking. The CPS found empty liquor bottles in her house and took her kids away again. She tried to find part-time jobs, dated a customer, and became pregnant with a boy. Barely seven months after she moved into the house, Gann voluntarily gave up her keys and checked herself back into rehab: “I decided that house was not supportive for my recovery or my safety or my kids … so I got out while I could.”

Sophia Lee

Les Jones (Sophia Lee)

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.”

Gary Kissel/King County Journal/AP

Mangano (Gary Kissel/King County Journal/AP)

While Mangano was passing out bread in Boston, Chris Megison was ladling soup for the homeless in San Diego. It was 1992, and Megison had just returned from the first Gulf War as a Marine. After losing a pushup bet, Megison had to volunteer at a local soup kitchen, where he met a chronically homeless man nicknamed “Wolfman,” who had such wild-sprouting facial hair that his only visible features were his eyes. Wolfman growled and shuffled off to a corner, and other volunteers whispered, “Watch out for him,” but that made Megison more determined to talk to him.

So he joined the man with a bowl of soup. For the next 20 minutes, they sat in utter silence, then Wolfman muttered, “My name’s Steve.” He said he had always wanted to join the Marine Corps, but after losing his parents to a tragedy, he dug into a crate of Jack Daniels—and has been drinking ever since. Then he told Megison how he survived the streets for decades: People were kind. He gained about $100 per day by panhandling, spending almost every penny on alcohol while loading up on free meals and donated sleeping bags from benevolent strangers.

Megison was incredulous. So he shoved on a beanie, threw on his rucksack, and trotted the streets for four days to check out Steve’s story. What he found was “this massive system of churches and well-meaning people trying to help”—without fixing much. He saw homeless people pick up their welfare checks, walk to the liquor store across the street, then swing around the block to collect cocaine—all within 15 minutes. He saw genuine people who were simply giving things away without following through on accountability.


Scott Smith/AP

Fresno (Scott Smith/AP)

Twenty-five years later, Megison is now president and CEO of Solutions for Change, a nonprofit transitional housing program for homeless families in North County San Diego. Key to Solutions’ success is its requirement that families stay sober and go through an intensive, structured 1,000-day residential program that includes classes on parenting, servant leadership, job training, and financial literacy. Ninety-three percent of families who have graduated from the program are still housed, employed, and self-sustaining.

In 2016, Solutions was the first homeless service provider in the country to give up HUD funds because it refused to comply with HUD regulations forbidding it from drug testing residents. That year, Solutions lost $600,000 of its $3.7 million annual budget, forcing it to lay off some employees and temporarily shut down its emergency shelter. Meanwhile, demand for the group’s services is growing. When Solutions first started in 1999, its waitlist had about 20 families. Today 300 families are on the waitlist.

Two individuals, Mangano and Megison, both felt “called” to solve homelessness after identifying the same problem: The system of homelessness assistance was not working. But one champions “Housing First,” while the other criticizes it. Why the difference?

Mangano looks at homelessness as a system of broken policies that needs to be fixed, and his research led him to conclude that “Housing First” is the best replacement policy. His primary goal: to get people housed. And for thousands of homeless people, particularly those with serious mental illnesses, it worked. But for some others, such as families with drug and domestic abuse issues, it didn’t.

Meanwhile, Megison looks at homelessness as a symptom of much-deeper causes: poverty, addiction, broken families—and he says giving somebody housing won’t solve the root issues that made them homeless in the first place. Many of the homeless population aren’t “cannots” but “will nots,” he said, yet “Housing First” treats the entire population like “cannots,” thus treating them as lifelong victims trapped in a lifelong cycle of dependency, instead of transforming them into active, contributing members of society who no longer need to depend on subsidized housing or welfare checks.

Greg Schneider/Genesis

Megison (Greg Schneider/Genesis)

When I met Amber Gann, she was 18 months into her program at Solutions for Change. After her disastrous experience with “Housing First” and her second rehab stint, she arrived at Solutions in the group’s pickup van, desperate to patch her life back together. Now halfway through the program, she says she’s learned how to deal with her childhood in a meth-addicted household, how to manage money, how to parent and form healthy relationships.

Today Gann has her children back and regularly volunteers at her kids’ PTA, her church, and a Twelve-Step program. She has been sober for two years and works for Solutions in development. This year she paid taxes for the first time, and she hopes to become a paralegal by the time she graduates the program.

Gann used to rage at HUD because she had been waiting for a Section 8 housing voucher for eight years, but now she wonders if she had the wrong goal: “Since coming here, I wonder … maybe my goal should be to get to a point where I don’t need that voucher, … that I shouldn’t be a person who’s always take, take, take, but to give back. I never knew that was important, I never knew how to give back. Now I’m learning to.”

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.