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Homelessness Official Wins Praise With Focus on Permanent Housing
Detractors Cite Mangano's Frequent Travel, Including Trips Abroad

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. "

Mangano began working full time on a Boston bread line. Within three years, he became the head of several city and state homeless service agencies in Massachusetts and co-founded the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance.

He became acquainted with A. Paul Cellucci, a former Republican governor of Massachusetts and ambassador to Canada, and former congressman Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.). Those connections came in handy when Andrew H. Card Jr., then chief of staff to President Bush, began looking for someone to help revitalize the administration's homelessness policy in 2002.

Mangano was tasked with taking a dormant agency, unfunded since 1996 under the Clinton administration, and making it into a relevant policy arm of the government's work to help the homeless. The office now has 14 paid staffers and a budget of roughly $2.7 million.

Mangano said that his office is working with President-elect Barack Obama's three-member transition team on housing and homelessness but that he is unsure about his future.

Some homelessness activists and Democratic congressional leaders have criticized Mangano, saying that his biweekly trips crisscrossing the country and his overseas travels cost too much and that he is failing to address the growing demand for shelter beds and other essentials.

"Mr. Mangano is respected around the world as an advocate for the homeless, but his current job is to get our federal agencies to focus on improving services to the homeless right here at home," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Jeremy Rosen, executive director of the National Policy and Advocacy Council on Homelessness, said Mangano should focus more on problems in Washington.

"It would be my belief that he's erred on the side of spending too much time on state, local and international travel, while not spending sufficient time back in Washington," said Rosen, who complained about Mangano's travels to congressional budget staffers.

Rosen and other critics say that Mangano has not done enough to coordinate policies and programs, in particular those aimed at assisting the growing wave of homeless families, or to increase federal funding for homelessness programs. For example, Hennepin County in Minnesota, which includes Minneapolis, received a little more than $8 million last year in HUD money to fight homelessness, about $1 million less than it received in 2004. And despite its success at providing more permanent housing, Minneapolis is being forced for the first time to house some of its homeless in motels, which some homeless advocates say is a result of the government's inattention to the surge in homeless families.

Democratic lawmakers inserted language in the past two annual Senate appropriations bills saying they were concerned about the director's time abroad. "The Committee believes that more time must be spent working to improve Federal policies, and coordinating the efforts of Federal agencies," this year's report says. "Therefore, the travel budget for the Executive Director is again limited to $50,000." Figures provided to The Washington Post indicate Mangano spends about $70,000 per year on domestic flights and lodging.

This year, committee staffers also sought to limit salaries and benefits to any council employee who spent more than four workweeks outside the United States. Mangano spent two weeks in May visiting Australia, traveled to Canada at least five times in the past three years, and accepted invitations to Denmark, Ireland and Scotland. Last fiscal year, Mangano spent 13 days overseas. This year, he has spent three weeks abroad.

Mangano called his travel schedule "one of the most transparent in Washington" and rejected criticism of his office's spending, calling his detractors "resistant" to his agency's ideas. He said that "about 95 percent" of his trips are in response to professional invitations and that most of his foreign trips have been paid for by outside organizations, adding that some of his most successful policies have been based on programs in other countries.

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