- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Hearing the term “homelessness” erects stereotypes in the minds of most Americans. But these edifices of the imagination are often misleading. One person working overtime to bulldoze these misconceptions is Phillip Mangano, a man some have called the Bush administration’s “Homelessness Czar.”

His stories, along with the White House initiatives on chronic homelessness, are parables about how faulty assumptions often lead to failed programs and how good intentions regularly perpetuate costly cycles of dependence. I recently sat down with Mr. Mangano as he shuttled between visits on Capitol Hill, shattering facades on a road between his own Jerusalem and Jericho.

One misconception is that chronic homelessness imposes few costs on the government. After all, they live on the streets; they don’t get welfare, health care or housing benefits. “A blanket and a bowl of soup is all they need, right?” Mr. Mangano rhetorically asked. They only tug on our extra coins and humanitarian guilt. Not true.

He told me about a study conducted in San Diego that tracked 15 homeless people over an 18-month period. The assumption was that they cost society little. But modern-day Good Samaritans, like Mr. Mangano, find the road to end homelessness littered with hidden price tags. Contrary to expectations, these 15 homeless persons cost the government $3 million in 18 months — or about $200,000 per person. The homeless “ricochet through expensive systems with no result,” Mr. Mangano said. Acute medical care, emergency rooms, ambulance services, courts, jails, law enforcement, all get called into service. It’s what Mr. Mangano describes as ad hoc, uncoordinated — and expensive — crisis intervention. Another larger study in Boston tracked 119 chronically homeless for five years and reached the same conclusions.

People with a heart for the homeless usually care because of “human, spiritual, or moral” concerns, Mr. Mangano told me. But in addition to those factors, now “the political will has been riveted in a new way because of economics.”

Another misconception about the homeless is that caring and advocating for their plight is the exclusive domain of bleeding-heart liberals. But the Bush administration is also demolishing this misunderstanding. Few recall in the fog following September 11, the White House announced an ambitious initiative to end chronic homelessness in 10 years. In early 2002, Mr. Bush announced the largest amount of homeless assistance in history, $1.27 billion to fund 3,700 local housing and services programs around the country. And the targeted funding has continued to grow — slated for another 6.7 percent increase in an otherwise declining non-defense, domestic discretionary budget — because the spending continues to produce results.

Part of the rationale for these new investments was based on an enlightened understanding of the hidden costs of homelessness. But the White House also concluded that policies needed to move in a new direction. In addition to record spending, the president announced the revitalization of the Interagency Council on Homelessness, which brings together 20 federal agencies to coordinate efforts to end chronic homelessness. The council, created during the Reagan administration, floundered during the 1990s as President Clinton’s Department of Housing and Urban Development tried to centralize bureaucratic control over the homeless issue, exercising a “Washington knows best” approach.

Mr. Bush recognized addressing homelessness was about building partnerships, not just erecting more government programs. Mr. Mangano, who says Mr. Bush “changed the verb in homelessness from ‘managing’ the problem to ‘ending’ it,” was appointed executive director of the council in 2002. He now has 211 mayors with 10-year plans to work with government at all levels, the private sector and faith-based groups to achieve the president’s goal of ending chronic homelessness.

Expanding the number of stakeholders and demanding results by creating opportunities, not just managing the problem, are all part of this new approach. Mr. Mangano says planning, partnerships and support for chronic homeless persons puts less stress on the system than ad hoc, uncoordinated interventions. It’s an example, he adds, where “doing the right thing is cheaper.” It’s easy to look the other way and avoid gazing at the problem of chronic homelessness, particularly when we assume it only costs us our loose change. But the Bush administration and Philip Mangano deserve credit for changing not only the way we think about the issue, but also how to end it.

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