The Abolitionist

From the heart of the Bush administration comes Philip Mangano, a fiery "advocrat" who preaches an end to American homelessness.



"We can now see the end of homelessness -- we can see it now," says Philip Mangano, gesturing with his arms, his voice almost at a shout. Mangano, a Boston native, is wiry and small in stature, but he can work a podium as well as a Southern preacher twice his size.

As he speaks, it becomes clear why Mangano has been called "an advocrat" -- his speaking style seems more Green Party candidate than Bush-administration appointee. We cannot, Mangano emphasizes, accept what people say about homelessness -- how it's part of the social landscape, how those people actually want to be homeless, how there's nothing we can do about it.

"Those same voices have been around for a long time," he says, his voice rising as he heads toward a big point. Those same voices told Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton that slavery wouldn't end and that women couldn't be equal, he says. They told Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn that the Iron Curtain would never fall, told Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu that apartheid would never end.

"They were wrong then -- and they're wrong now," Mangano says.

Mangano has been barnstorming the country, often touching ground in a few cities a day, to speak to local groups and to meet with mayors and governors about the idea of ending homelessness. He flew into town last month to speak at the Nov. 19 annual meeting for Unity for the Homeless, the collaborative that coordinates the local response to homelessness on behalf of 70 member agencies that run this city's shelters and provide health care, food, job-training, substance-abuse counseling, and legal assistance.

Mangano understands how Unity works. He headed up its equivalent in Massachusetts for 23 years before he was tapped early last year to lead the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. From that post, Mangano oversees all homeless-related activities within 20 cabinet-level federal agencies and reports directly to the White House.

Unity executive director Martha Kegel has heard Mangano speak before -- "That's exactly why we invited him." His speaking style and message galvanize crowds, she says, and they wanted to see that happen in New Orleans.

Mangano, she says, makes the point that "everyone, no matter where they're coming from, has a vested interest in ending homelessness." That seemed especially appropriate last month, as Unity embarked on its newly minted collaborative with the New Orleans Police Department, which emphasizes help rather than handcuffs for local homeless people.

"I think you've got a great start here in New Orleans with the partnership you've got with your police department -- it's a national model," says Mangano. He asks for an "amen," a nod to the preacher who had stood at that podium earlier and given an invocation. He gets both the amen and loud applause from the crowd of homeless people, former homeless people, and the agency people who work with them.

Mangano asks Eighth District NOPD Capt. Louis Dabdoub to step forward. "He's creating a national model," shouts Mangano. "And they (the police) wanted help as much as you wanted it from them."

"Philip is kind of like a preacher; he's trying to convert people," says Kegel. By the end of the speech, Mangano is asking, "What's our one goal?" The crowd is answering, "Abolish homelessness."

Before Mangano stepped up to the podium, Gregory Hamilton stood in front of the mic and introduced him. "Philip Mangano is an abolitionist," said Hamilton, the director of the community planning and development division for the New Orleans office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). "He is not content to manage the homeless crisis," Hamilton told the crowd. "He believes that now is the time to end homelessness. I am convinced that I'm introducing to you the right man in the right job at the right time -- Philip Mangano."

"Philip is not some guy at the top who got there as the result of bureaucratic processes," Hamilton says. "He has many years of personal, hands-on experience with homeless persons. He's worked on soup lines and at shelters. And that's the origin of his passion and his commitment."

Mangano talks about the feeling that people had in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when "we saw a homeless person on the street and we couldn't believe what we were seeing." He says that as homelessness became more common, people became "anesthetized" to the struggles of the homeless. That needs to change, he says, because homelessness is "a social evil," something that shouldn't be tolerated.

Mangano's speeches are often sprinkled with quotes from the work of abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. He calls St. Francis of Assisi and the French intellectual-philosopher Simone Weil "patron saints." In fact, it was a movie about St. Francis -- Franco Zeffirelli's Brother Sun, Sister Moon -- that prompted Mangano to quit his work in Los Angeles as a music agent and manager for bands such as Buffalo Springfield and Peter, Paul, and Mary. In the mid-1970s, soon after seeing the film, he moved back to Boston and began working on a bread line.

As a result, Mangano knows the joys and frustrations of this work, says Hamilton. "People, particularly people who have been working with the homeless for a long time, are genuinely tired of seeing the problem persist," Hamilton says. "Philip is saying, 'Don't lose heart, it can be abolished, and these are the things we can do to abolish it.' That's very uplifting."

That message seems especially hopeful because it has the backing of the Bush administration. "It might sound like Philip is kind of out there, alone and on his own, the only person that's saying it, but that's absolutely not the case," says Hamilton, citing the administration's initiative to end chronic homelessness within 10 years. Brian Sullivan, the Washington, D.C.-based HUD spokesman, says that the administration will "shortly" announce an unprecedented amount of funding for homeless assistance. "Never before has HUD ever announced this kind of money," Sullivan promises.

Mangano's current barnstorming is part of the administration's 10-year initiative. His job is to persuade all the nation's governors and the mayors in the 100 largest cities to create, by 2004, 10-year plans for ending homelessness. That is a challenge in itself, to persuade often-liberal mayors that a Republican administration is sincere about providing housing for the nation's homeless.

But so far, so good. In New Orleans, Mangano stopped at City Hall and got a pledge of support from Mayor Ray Nagin and city housing head Alberta Pate. In the previous weeks, Mangano had elicited similar pledges from the mayors of Chicago and Los Angeles; two days later, Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York announced similar intentions.

The mayor of Springfield, Ill., also announced a 10-year plan -- a symbolic coup for Mangano. "He announced it in the old statehouse in Illinois," Mangano told the Unity crowd, "where Lincoln served as a state representative and delivered the 'nation divided' speech."

The abolition of homelessness has become a realistic idea, says Mangano. That's because -- unlike ever before -- research and test projects in several cities have proven that it's both possible and cost-effective to end homelessness for people with a wide range of problems.

In Massachusetts, research showed Mangano that advocates are able to end homelessness for most people. The problem, he found, was that in Massachusetts they would help six people out the shelters' back doors and then see seven more enter through the front doors.

That "front door-back door paradigm" is now central to the government's planning, says Hamilton. It's the reason that the Bush administration is now requiring all cities that receive homelessness funding to create "discharge plans" for the institutions whose clients often end up in shelters -- hospitals, jails, the foster-care system, mental institutions and substance-abuse clinics.

As he tries to limit the number of people at the front door, Mangano is also trying to reduce the number of people sleeping nearby on sidewalks and in doorways. These are known as the "chronically homeless" -- street people, most of them men, who have mental and physical disabilities and have been homeless for more than a year. In New Orleans, Unity estimates that about 1,400 chronically homeless people live on the streets of this city. Three out of four are New Orleans natives.

The chronically homeless are complex people who often have substance-abuse problems prompted by unchecked mental illness. Still, many advocates say, the effort is worthwhile for a few key reasons. Typically, these are the people on the street who the general public sees -- and complains about. Some studies have found that the chronically homeless make up 10 percent of the homeless population but use up to 50 percent of public resources spent on the homeless. New research has also shown that, for these people and most others, the first step toward ending homelessness is simple -- find them a home.

"In the past, we thought you had to first get them clean and sober or get them to admit that they were mentally ill," Kegel says. Programs in New York and Philadelphia have found that it's more cost effective to place people in apartments and then help them confront their other problems through visits from a trained treatment team. Despite the fact that homelessness has been increasing nationwide, Philadelphia, which practices this "housing-first" method, has seen shelter use decline by 5 percent for each of the past several years -- and has closed five shelters during that time. Other cities have had similar successes.

Mangano's approach does have its critics, who say that, by targeting the chronically homeless, this initiative short-changes homeless families, children and other homeless people who don't meet the "chronic" definition. This summer, the National Coalition for the Homeless outlined its complaints in a letter to Mangano, signed by two dozen groups that represent the homeless, children and people of color.

"Only a sustained effort to address the systemic causes of homelessness, including lack of adequate health care, affordable housing, and livable incomes, will prevent and end homelessness for people with and without disabilities," said the letter. "This is perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the 'chronic homelessness' initiative: the complete absence of any discussion of poverty." The federal government can't pretend to be helping the homeless with one hand while gutting Section 8 and other housing programs with the other, the letter said.

"Your concerns are evident and important," wrote Mangano in an Aug. 6 response to the coalition. However, he wrote, the federal government's focus on the chronic homeless did not exclude others, and it shouldn't be blamed for other wrongheaded federal policy. "To imply or indicate that the chronic homelessness initiative is responsible for so many policy misdirections, most existing long before its inception, overstates reality."

Although his ideas, backed up by statistics and financial data, appeal to businesspeople, Mangano is clear that the abolition of homelessness is not simply about financial gain or neater streetscapes. "Homeless people are our neighbors," he says. "And we learned a long time ago how to treat our neighbors."

"We have to remember what our first call was," Mangano says. "We saw homeless people."

In his speech, Mangano emphasizes the idea that widespread homelessness has not always been with us. "Think about that 25 years ago, we didn't have pervasive homelessness," says Kegel.

"People just thought that homelessness would go away by itself," says Steve Berg, a vice president at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the group that, in 2000, first articulated a 10-year plan to end homelessness in this country. When homelessness didn't just evaporate, he says, people moved to the idea that homelessness was "a problem that's always going to be there, that there was nothing you could do about it." For Berg, Mangano's focus on ending homelessness is a much-needed philosophy shift and "a big, major story in public policy."

Berg traces the advent of widespread homelessness to two chief causes -- rising housing costs and stagnant low-income wages. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he says, the United States experienced a steep loss in affordable housing due to -- among other things -- urban renewal, condo conversion, and a significant reduction in federal support for affordable housing. So housing costs skyrocketed. "At the same time," Berg says, "incomes at the bottom of the income scale did not really go up -- they sort of topped out in the late-1970s and have flattened out and gone down in real terms since then. So people have less money, and they have to pay more for housing."

In poor communities, homelessness is now a common experience. Recently the Urban Institute estimated that, each year, between 5 percent and 10 percent of all poor people will experience homelessness.

Without an increased amount of affordable housing, this situation will not change, says Berg. Essentially, everyone in poor communities is vying to stay housed. "To some extent, it's like a game of musical chairs," he says. "Somebody's going to be homeless, and the person who is, in many ways, is just the person with the worst luck. And if you get them into one of the chairs that's left, all it's going to mean is that somebody else isn't in there."

Mangano acknowledges that the current situation is unsatisfactory. He hopes that the chronic homeless initiative will create two things -- political will and housing. "My goal is to have my grandchildren go to a museum to see what hungry once was," Mangano says. "They'll have to go to the New Orleans shelter museum to see what homelessness once was in our country."

"What's our one goal?" he asks again. "Abolish homelessness," he repeats, his arm beating the air above the podium.

Philip Mangano has been barnstorming the country, - speaking to local groups and meeting with mayors - and governors about ending homelessness. So far, - he's elicited pledges from mayors in cities such as - New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and New Orleans. - U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT
  • U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • Philip Mangano has been barnstorming the country, speaking to local groups and meeting with mayors and governors about ending homelessness. So far, he's elicited pledges from mayors in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and New Orleans.

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