May 13, 2004


THE ABOLITIONIST:"With his dark tailored suits and his silver banker's coif, Philip Mangano looks like a liberal Democrat's idea of a conservative Republican's idea of an advocate for the poor--which, as the Bush
Administration's homelessness czar, he happens to be." Philip Mangano has some new ideas about homelessness. His question: Will liberals accept compassionate conservatism if it works? (Douglas McGray, June 2004, Atlantic Monthly)

Mangano's message is as pure an example as can be found in government of "compassionate conservatism," which argues that traditionally liberal social concerns can be advanced through such conservative principles as responsibility and accountability. Though this was the centerpiece of George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, the "compassion agenda" heralded in the President's inaugural address seemed to dissolve in the face of partisanship, underfunding, and an all-consuming foreign policy. What was once a unifying theme is now likely to be invoked by his rival as evidence of Bush's hollowness. "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith, but has no deeds?" John Kerry recently asked an audience in Jackson, Mississippi, quoting from the Book of James. Mangano is nevertheless making a compelling case for compassionate conservatism in an unlikely field.

Widespread street homelessness is a relatively recent problem, at least in the modern era. It began to appear in the late 1970s, when the economy tanked, affordable housing began to disappear, and state hospitals, prodded by patients'-rights activists, released hundreds of thousands of the mentally ill into communities unprepared to receive them. Temporary shelters sprang up in church basements and neighborhood centers to address what was expected to be a short-term crisis. But the problem of homelessness persisted, and improvised measures became entrenched. After years of government neglect the Clinton Administration finally responded by tripling funding for programs to help the homeless and encouraging local organizations to offer a wide range of services, from counseling to health care. But, incredibly, the numbers of the homeless only increased. Today a patchwork of federal, state, city, and private money supports more than 40,000 programs—some cheap, others expensive; some staggeringly successful, others struggling; each with its own agenda; and few accountable for the work they perform. "We're trying to disrupt this ad hoc approach," Mangano says. "We're saying it needs to be strategic."

Homelessness is one of the few corners of public policy in which traditional liberal ideas have gone largely unchallenged. But Mangano believes that many professional activists, though well intentioned, have given up on ending homelessness. They have accepted the problem as intractable and fallen back on social work and handouts as a way to make broken lives more bearable. In doing so, he says, they have allowed "a certain amount of institutionalism" to take root. The Bush Administration proposes to solve the problem by beginning with the hardest cases: the 10 percent who are severe addicts or mentally ill, and consume half of all resources devoted to homeless shelters. Mangano believes that by moving these chronic cases into "supportive housing"—a private room or apartment where they would receive support services and psychotropic medications—the government could actually save money, and free up tens of thousands of shelter beds. The Bush Administration, spotting an opportunity to increase the return on its investment, is seeking to end chronic homelessness within ten years. Not only is this possible, Mangano insists, but it is common sense.

Mangano's forthright presence has divided a close-knit community. Perhaps not surprisingly, supportive-housing advocates and those who work with addicts and the mentally ill tend to be enthusiastic about his ideas. Outreach workers and emergency-shelter managers are divided. "There are people threatened ideologically and financially by this sort of change," explains Dennis Culhane, a professor of social-welfare policy at the University of Pennsylvania. "Absent new resources, shifting resources to permanent housing will take resources away from shelters."

Once Mangano had finished speaking on that March morning, the skeptics started probing for clues that he was providing intellectual cover for budget cuts, or cooking up a plot to get the smelly, crazy, drunken homeless out of sight and then ignore the rest. But his energetic sincerity disarmed them—to their evident dismay, in some cases. In desperation one brought up weapons of mass destruction, and Mangano rolled his eyes. "It's so refreshing to be back in New York, surrounded by Democrats," he cracked. [...]

Mangano believes that the breakthrough in the battle to abolish homelessness occurred only in the past five years, after Dennis Culhane determined that about one percent of the nation's urban population was homeless each year—more than anyone expected. Culhane studied this group and discovered that most were homeless for less than two months, but a hard-core minority—about 10 percent—stayed in shelters about two years, on average. "The emergency-shelter system," Culhane explained, "designed as a safety net, was serving as an expensive form of permanent housing." He measured just how much the chronic cases cost by tracking 10,000 mentally ill homeless people in New York, 5,000 of whom were placed in supportive housing and 5,000 of whom remained in shelters or on the street. It turned out that the first group cost the city no more, and probably less, than the second. A wave of similar studies reinforced his findings.

This hard-numbers approach amounted to a radical shift for advocates on behalf of the homeless, who had long focused on emotional appeals for greater attention and investment. Although sympathetic to their motivation, Mangano believes that political leaders have grown numb to sob stories, especially since the debate over welfare reform. "There were homeless advocates saying the sky is falling, the wolf is at the door, if welfare as we know it is changed," he says. None of it happened. Now "research is the new advocacy."

Their inability to reconcile themselves to the success of welfare reform suggests that the conservatism of an idea suffices to make it unacceptable even if it works.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 13, 2004 11:21 PM

And what about those WMDs? Why doesn't Mangano answer the question?

More proof that social welfare groups are not in the business to help people.

Posted by: NKR at May 14, 2004 7:57 AM

Very nice site. Keep up the good work.

Sfide del casino

Posted by: Sfide del casino at November 7, 2004 3:14 AM

Thank you, I just wanted to give a greeting and tell you I like your website.

Guía de Casino

Posted by: Guía de Casino at November 7, 2004 3:14 AM