Dana Harris came to Washington four years ago as a mere intern in the office that was to become the Federal Task Force on Homelessness.
Today, at age 25, she is executive director of the Homelessness Information Exchange.
No, this isn't a piece on the meteoric success of a bright young woman. The truth is, her present position isn't that big a deal. Her nonprofit Homelessness Information Exchange is a four-woman operation in a cubbyhole provided by the National Urban Coalition; her income is not the stuff to set parents boasting, and her name is not exactly a household word.
Harris' story has a different point: If you don't like the way government is doing it, do it yourself.
Harris didn't like the way the Federal Task Force, brainchild of former health and human services secretary Margaret Heckler, was doing it. The agency, established when homelessness forced itself into the national consciousness, was designed to cut red tape and help local advocates avail themselves of whatever resources were available for the homeless.
"It didn't work very well for the homeless," she recalls. "It gave me the opportunity to learn the scope of information across the country: what groups were doing, what research was out there, what new ways coalitions were building to address the problem. But it wasn't real good at getting the information out to the people who needed it.
"And there was so much information -- file drawers packed full of information that I knew groups needed and wanted and could make a difference -- but it wasn't organized and wasn't accessible to those who needed it."
So she left the task force and, with little experience and few connections, set about raising private money to do the job herself. Today she may know as much about programs and resources for the homeless as anybody in the country. More to the point, she has set up a mechanism for pooling and sharing that information so that it is no longer necessary for local groups to go on reinventing the same wheels.
Her tiny office is building four separate data bases: one containing detailed information on model programs, another comprising relevant research, a third devoted to local and national funding sources, and a fourth that is a one-of-a-kind directory of experts on various aspects of homelessness.
"We do a lot more than just summarize programs and share information," Harris says. "We work from the premise that there is a vast amount of resources in communities nationwide, be it buildings, funds, volunteers, concerned individuals, or existing programs, that can and should be used more efficiently to help the homeless."
If a local group wants to know how to launch a citywide program, Harris can provide information on the Burnside Job Corporation, a Portland, Ore., operation that provides everything from food and shelter to job training. For those whose interest is state aid, there is information on programs in New York and Massachusetts. If the goal is prevention, there is information on how San Francisco activists succeeded in halting the razing of single-room-occupancy buildings.
Harris can tell you how Tom Nees of Washington's Community of Hope uses federal money that would otherwise go to welfare hotels to house homeless families and provide day care and other services while saving more than $25,000 per family per year.
"The programs are out there, and some of them are great -- really making a difference. But they are not being documented, not being shared. Every time I go to a conference on homelessness, I hear people saying to each other, 'I didn't know you could do that,' or 'Tell me how you got that one started,' or 'How did you get the legislature or the council to put up the money?'
"I'm not an expert on any of this stuff; I'm just trying to be a vehicle for experts. And I'm also trying to spread the belief that good things can happen for the homeless. A lot of people don't really believe that, you know."