Street Shuffle

Gavin Newsom's push to move the "chronic" homeless into supportive housing has made him the darling of the Bush administration's homelessness czar. But is there enough money to make it work?

"It's reshuffling the deck," says Allison Lum, shelter outreach coordinator at the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, a leading advocacy group.

Although his political rivals and homeless service providers may be doubting Thomases, Newsom is not without a cheering section. In fact, there is no bigger fan of what he is trying to accomplish than the homelessness czar. "The mayor is absolutely a leading role model for what he's attempting to do," effuses Mangano, who praises Newsom's courage for making homelessness the lead issue of his new administration.

Mangano didn't invent the playbook, with its emphasis on providing permanent supportive housing to the chronically homeless. But he knows no equal when it comes to promoting it. In the not quite two years since Bush appointed him to revive the moribund U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the congenitally enthusiastic Mangano has won converts among legislators, big-city mayors, academicians, the media, and -- surprisingly, considering his indictment of the way the problem has been handled for the last 20 years -- a fair share of nonprofit service providers.

Home of the Homeless: San Francisco has the 
highest proportion of chronically homeless people of 
any U.S. city.
Paolo Vescia
Home of the Homeless: San Francisco has the highest proportion of chronically homeless people of any U.S. city.
As Newsom focuses on the 3,000 to 5,000 "chronics," 
the price tag will be steep.
Paolo Vescia
As Newsom focuses on the 3,000 to 5,000 "chronics," the price tag will be steep.

His approach flows from a simple premise: Everything else that has been tried since widespread street homelessness began to appear in the late 1970s has failed. It matters little that the road to failure has been paved with good intentions. The number of homeless people has only increased, even after the Clinton administration followed years of neglect by tripling the funding for homeless programs. He makes a compelling case that the hodgepodge of often competing federal, state, and local programs has exacerbated the problem, while few of these offerings have been accountable for the results they've produced.

Mangano's crusade is not only to bring accountability to what critics derisively refer to as the "Homeless-Industrial Complex" -- the array of agencies, public and private, that provide one form of care or another -- but to zero in on a particular segment of the homeless population, the chronic homeless, something never before attempted. The words "national" and "disgrace" tend to fall from his lips in consecutive order a lot. He sees ending homelessness as a moral imperative. "I'm an abolitionist," he's fond of saying.

Although the problem may seem as intractable as ever, Mangano insists that in terms of how to go about remedying it, there's already a breakthrough. He points to research done in the last decade by Dennis Culhane, a professor of social welfare policy at the University of Pennsylvania. Using homeless populations in New York and Philadelphia, Culhane is credited with providing the first clear quantitative picture of homelessness in America.

Culhane's studies revealed, for example, that about 1 percent of the nation's urban population was homeless each year, more than anyone expected. But the zinger was that a hard-core 10 percent of the homeless population -- the chronics -- consumed 50 percent of resources provided for all homeless people. Tracking 10,000 mentally ill homeless people in New York, half of whom were placed in ostensibly much more expensive supportive housing and half who were funneled through temporary shelters, Culhane found that over time the first group ended up costing the city no more than the second. That's because getting people into housing and off the streets meant that fire and police departments, ambulance crews, and hospital emergency rooms were racking up far fewer hours dealing with them. (Of the nearly $200 million a year San Francisco spends on homeless people, nearly half of it is associated with such "indirect" assistance.) Since then, a slew of similar research has reinforced his findings.

In his previous role as a well-known advocate for the homeless in Massachusetts, Mangano had worked with Culhane. By the late 1990s he'd concluded that the long-entrenched, scattershot approach to dealing with the problem was leading nowhere. One group whose leaders had reached the same conclusion was the National Alliance to End Homelessness, born in the early years of the Reagan administration. Its co-chair, Susan Baker, the wife of former Secretary of State James A. Baker, is a longtime Mangano ally. Not long after President Bush named Mel Martinez as his new HUD secretary, Baker landed a meeting with him and sold him on the idea of having Mangano appointed as homelessness czar.

Mangano would appear to be the perfect salesman for the Bush team. Even his critics do not question his sincerity. A former rock manager who represented members of Buffalo Springfield and Peter, Paul & Mary, he had an epiphany years ago while watching a Franco Zeffirelli film about the life of St. Francis of Assisi. He quit his job on the feast day of St. Francis in 1980 and took up volunteering full time at a Boston soup kitchen. He ended up running the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, consisting of about 80 nonprofit agencies.

These days, with ordinary citizens and politicians alike exasperated by the proliferation of street people, Mangano is accorded a welcome more befitting a folk hero than a government bureaucrat as he travels about the country. And he travels constantly, prodding cities and counties to develop 10-year plans to end chronic homelessness, à la Newsom's 10-Year Plan Council. He is looking to fund programs that are results-oriented, ones that can demonstrate with cold hard numbers that they are actually moving people off the streets and into housing with on-site nurses and counselors to help keep them there.

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