From the Partnership for Public Service
Monday, August 31, 2009 4:46 AM
Homelessness may seem like an unyielding national problem, but not to Michael German.
As the regional coordinator of the Atlanta Interagency Council on Homelessness, German is a man with a cause, tirelessly working to shift the emphasis from reliance on temporary shelters to creating more permanent housing and providing necessary social services to assist people in need.
"The key is not building more shelters, but more housing, even just small apartments or rooms, and hooking people up with available state and federal services such as Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps, veterans benefits or veterans health care," German said. Plus, he said building and maintaining a shelter "is actually more expensive than building or buying places for homeless people to live."
German is one of ten regional coordinators for HUD's Interagency Council on Homelessness, a group that coordinates federal efforts to reduce long-term homelessness and creates partnerships with local governments and the private sector to confront this issue.
"We're trying to change the mindset of people. We've used moral, spiritual and humanitarian reasons to treat homelessness for 20 years, and it's gotten us nothing," German said.
German said moving away from shelters requires a buy-in from local officials, businesses, hospitals and nonprofits and others in a community. To earn their support, he said he appeals mostly to their financial sense.
"When I visit a new city, instead of taking potential partners to dinner, I take them to the local emergency room," German said. "I ask the nurses, 'Do you treat homeless individuals? How many daily?' I multiply these daily numbers to get yearly numbers and the mayors and business leaders see the costs right away."
German and the council's outreach has led to elected officials committing political capital and sizable resources to creating housing opportunities and offering basic social services.
Today, more than 850 mayors and county executives in some 350 jurisdictions have 10-year plans to end homelessness.
These plans are framed around business principles, informed by innovation and focused on a single measurement of homelessness -- the number of people without a place to live. German said that participating communities have witnessed reduced stress on their hospital emergency rooms, rescue squads, police, jails, libraries, and parks.
One example of a city that adopted German's plan is Miami.
"Michael has been incredible. He's always there, staying in touch, offering advice," Manuel Diaz, the mayor of Miami, said. "Homelessness is obviously a complicated issue and one of the most difficult to solve, but Michael's can-do spirit makes you believe we can overcome any obstacle."
Phillip Mangano, former executive director of the HUD homelessness council, believes the response has been positive not only because of the message, but the messenger.
"Michael has never met a stranger. His ability to connect with others on a personal level and earn their trust is an invaluable commodity in his position," Mangano said. "Michael does a great service to the nation, to states, to cities and to the private sector. His work touches people from the highest levels of government down to the poorest streets in this nation."
The expansion of the HUD program coincided with a drop in the number of homeless people in the last several years. Yet most experts anticipate the numbers are now again on the rise because of economic recession.
German said that although some forces, such as economic downturn, are beyond his control, he is determined to make inroads, alter old ways of thinking and make a down-to-earth difference in the everyday lives of people who are struggling.
"The homeless don't want a pill or a program. They just want a place to stay," he said.
This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Visit www.ourpublicservice.org for more about the organization's work.