Homelessness Official Wins Praise With Focus on Permanent Housing

Philip F. Mangano in Boston, before he left Massachusetts government to join the Bush administration. He says he is working with Obama aides but is unsure about his future.
Philip F. Mangano in Boston, before he left Massachusetts government to join the Bush administration. He says he is working with Obama aides but is unsure about his future. (2002 Photo By Gretchen Ertl -- Associated Press)
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By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Since he became the Bush administration's homelessness czar in 2002, Philip F. Mangano has attempted to sell officials in the United States and around the world on his preferred solution for getting people off the streets, asking them to focus on providing permanent housing instead of temporary shelters.

With a small staff and budget, the former seminarian and music agent has taken his ideas on the road, traveling an average of 18 weeks per year, records show. His critics contend that his tenure has been more public relations than substance, and Democrats in Congress have tried in vain to cap his travel budget.

Mangano's supporters, however, say he deserves some of the credit for a steep decline in the national homelessness rate in recent years. A Department of Housing and Urban Development report earlier this year -- before the economic crisis kicked in -- noted a 12 percent drop in the number of homeless people from 2005 to 2007. The percentage of those classified as "chronically homeless" dropped even more sharply.

Mangano's "housing first" approach has won admirers in several big cities. D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) instituted a similar program in August, placing nearly 500 people in apartments across the city, with more such moves planned. About 300 cities and counties, along with the states of Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Utah, have their own 10-year supportive housing plans in place, Mangano's staff said.

"I have disagreed with almost every housing policy in this administration, but Philip Mangano is a godsend," said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak (D), who credits Mangano with helping the city adopt its homelessness plan and "focus" its scant resources.

Mangano, 60, refers to homeless people as "consumers" and said he thinks that decades of government policies to reduce the homeless population were misguided.

"When you ask the consumer what they want, they don't simply say a bed, blanket and a bowl of soup," he said in an interview. "They say they want a place to live. We have resources being provided to us at record levels. If you look at the numbers for chronic homelessness, we're winning."

As head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Mangano has employed PowerPoint presentations to encourage homeless "business plans" -- ambitious goals for cities and counties that push for permanent housing and the creation of one-day workshops to connect the homeless to federal resources. Most important, Mangano said, he has tried to "promote accountability," by putting local officials in charge of their own homelessness policies.

"There needs to be someone, at the local level, who can take ownership of these ideas," he said.

Mangano grew up in the Boston area, graduating from Boston University and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary before moving to California. He became an agent and manager for members of Buffalo Springfield and Peter, Paul and Mary in 1970s Los Angeles.

After returning to Boston, Mangano said, he felt a "spiritual awakening" when he watched Franco Zeffirelli's film about St. Francis of Assisi, "Brother Sun, Sister Moon."

"I never knew you could dedicate your life to the service of the poor," Mangano said. "As bad as it sounds, I learned more in that two-hour movie than I did at three years in seminary school. "

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