Monday, May 14, 2007

Counting the Homeless with Philip Mangano

NPR's Scott Simon did a softball interview with Bush administration homelessness czar Philip Mangano last Saturday on Weekend Edition, and Phil offered a genially upbeat litany of distortions and half truths as he assured us that the "business focused, results oriented" Ten Year Plan strategies are succeeding in ending homelessness. It was disappointing to hear Simon, who is certainly capable of doing a tough interview, defer to Mangano as if he were the reincarnation of Mother Theresa.

Simon sets the stage for Mangano's rap by parroting the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness line that ten percent of the homeless draw fifty percent of the emergency shelter resources, and that the magic bullet to ending homelessness lies in relentlessly focusing our attention on the toughest cases.

The rebuttal to this gets pretty deep into the weeds, which is part of why Mangano's oversimplification works so well. The short version is that the studies upon which this is based exclude several key groups, like families with children. The Ten Tear Plan model also assumes a static reality, which is just weird. For a good overview and critique, see NPACH's Q&A on chronic homelessness.

What I find so maddening about Mangano is how successful he's been in sidelining any discussion of structural poverty in relation to the problem of homelessness. By focusing national attention on the most dysfunctional and stereotypically "homeless" ten percent of the two million or more who are without housing, he has managed to deflect attention from the many ways in which federal policy creates poverty while effectively placing ninety-five percent of the responsibility for a solution on the localities.

He uses the terms chronic homeless, street homeless, and homeless interchangeably, so when he talks about these huge "reductions" that are taking place, any normal person would assume he's talking about homelessness in general. Thus, the illusion is established that major progress has been made when the reality is far less encouraging.

In Portland, for example, Mangano says homelessness has decreased by 70%. Without going into the complexities of the count, let's just say that this is an extremely contested number. The City of Portland claims a 39% decrease. Portland's Street Roots says they're not convinced.

The 2006 Conference of Mayors report says that requests for family shelter in that city actually rose. Outside the city, these rosy reports of ending homelessness turn positively grim. Some advocates claim that rural homelessness in Oregon is up by as much as 300%.

San Fransisco, another of Mangano's successes with a 38% decrease, reports a rise in family requests for shelter as well. Overall, says the Conference of Mayors, homelessness is up by six percent, nearly a third of family requests for shelter go unmet, and the average length of an episode of homelessness is now at eight months, the longest on record.

A recent internal fight within the our own Committee to End Homelessness in King County might shed some light. While some parties within CEHKC, based on the last two years' counts, wanted to report similar declines in homelessness, others argued that changes in the timing and methodology of the annual one night count rendered comparisons less than entirely meaningful. This point of view eventually prevailed.

Something that goes unsaid in all this counting and recounting is that most cities are employing liberal use of the stick right along side the Housing First carrot. Portland, LA, San Fransisco, and a host of other cities have become decidedly less hospitable, and this decreases the numbers as well. LA, for example, sends their police out every two weeks to roust sleeping homeless people under the guise of getting an accurate count. The numbers in LA's skid row have declined sharply.

Over the last three years in San Fransisco, says the Mayor's press release, "1,864 homeless persons left San Francisco to be reunited with friends or family members in other parts of the country through the City's Homeward Bound Program." This is otherwise known as the one-way bus ticket out of town. Long-time San Fransisco advocate Paul Boden reports that his city now counts these as housing placements.

So as Mangano goes around crowing his mission accomplished message, I'm thinking I've heard it before, and it wasn't true then either.

I'm just thankful that he didn't go into his "I'm from Massachusetts and an abolitionist, and Republicans ended slavery and they'll end homelessness too" rap. That just might have sent me right over the edge.

32 comments:

Krysalist said...

Don't forget Mangano's predilection towards first-class flying and airport limousines...

The reason interviewers don't hit him with hard enough questions is they don't fucking care whether or not the homelessness czar is actually promoting progress or a hobbling -- is that too cynical a belief? I want it to be...

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