Abolishing Homelessness in Ten Years
During the social upheaval of the 1970s and early 1980s, American churches began putting a much higher priority on fighting homelessness. Nearly 40 years later, these food, shelter, and outreach ministries continue. Philip Mangano, a manager in the 1970s with the late Larry Norman's Solid Rock Records, owner of Street Level Artists Agency, and a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, was among the pioneers in Christian rock and the fight against homelessness.
Since 2002, Mangano has served as executive director of the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness. He has been shaking up the world of homeless outreach by saying that rapid re-housing will abolish chronic homelessness. Recently, David Neff, editor in chief of Christianity Today, spoke with Mangano about this new economic approach and how well it might work during our current recession.
What prompted your interest in homelessness?
It was the direct result of going to a movie, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, about Francis of Assisi. I went into that movie theater thinking one way about my life, and I came out thinking a completely different way. When I left the music industry in 1980, I determined that I would move back to Boston and involve myself with the poorest of the poor. I began going to St. Anthony Shrine in Boston. They had created a breadline because they had so many people coming to the rectory. I knew immediately that's exactly what I wanted to do. [After years of working at city and state levels], I got a fateful call. President George W. Bush was looking for a person to lead this agency called the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. I moved to Washington in 2002.
Will the Obama administration let this interagency group go dormant, as it was during the Clinton years?
There's a great deal of appreciation for the kind of national partnership that we've created. The agency coordinates the activities of the federal government, but we've expanded its mandate.
We've worked with 850 mayors and county executives to partner around more than 350 ten-year plans that dare to put the verb end together with the noun homelessness. Government won't get the job done; we need the private sector. That includes faith communities and nonprofits as well as corporate entities, chambers of commerce, and hospitals.
How do we end homelessness?
For 20 years, we gave ourselves to managing homelessness. If you think you can't abolish a wrong, you tend to manage it. We've learned that if good intentions could end homelessness, it would have been history decades ago. We need to get beyond the notion that we cannot abolish this social wrong. Our intent now is to end homelessness.
The central antidote to homelessness is a place to live. In the context of that place to live, in the stability and security of that place, people can create a trajectory with the help of community support services. It's called "permanent supportive housing."
It's not just a free apartment.
The empirical evidence tells us that simply giving people a place to live without support services sets people up for failure. When you provide support services with a place to live, you create trajectories into recovery from mental illness, into recovery from addiction, or into recovery from economic difficulties.
We reframe the issue in business and economic terms. The cost of maintaining a person in homelessness is more expensive than solving his homelessness. Can I spend $35,000$150,000 per year on emergency rooms, police, fire, public defenders, and so on for a chronically homeless person? Or should I spend $13,000$25,000 on supportive housing in order to create stability for that person and a trajectory toward self-sufficiency and recovery? You don't have to be Warren Buffett or Suze Orman to figure that out.