WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE HOMELESS? "We haven't heard much--anything, really--about the homeless since, oh, roughly January 20, 1993," Andrew Ferguson noted in January 2001, predicting that with Bush replacing Clinton, the media would soon rediscover them. As if on cue, days later the Washington Post ran a 2,000-word opus on the plight of the homeless in the nation's capital.

But does the reverse hold? If the Bush administration makes progress on homelessness, does it make news? The answer, all too predictably, is no.

At a remarkably underreported conference in Denver in May, advocates for the homeless met to discuss a pattern of falling homeless populations across the country. In the past six months, New York has announced a reduction of 13 percent, Denver 11 percent, Portland 20 percent, Miami 30 percent, Philadelphia 50 percent. The story merited squibs in the Denver Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Rocky Mountain News. The New York Times ran a page 19 story almost a month later. Beyond that, silence.

"All this comes from President Bush," says Philip Mangano, who worked with the homeless for 25 years in Boston before becoming director of the federal Interagency Council on the Homeless. "The president promised in his 2002 State of the Union that we were going to find a cure for homelessness. It's the 'no-child-left-behind' mentality. He doesn't like to see people left behind." Such declarations have been made time and again over the past 25 years without much effect. The difference this time is that Mangano and the Interagency Council seem to have found a successful formula--"Housing First."

Much of the program is admittedly a rah-rah, get-everybody-on-board effort that enlists mayors, governors, church leaders, shelter organizations, social service agencies, civic groups, business leaders, and everyone else to the task. Pep rallies are held; Malcolm Gladwell lectures on the "Tipping Point"; Harvard's Clayton Christensen talks about the "Innovator's Dilemma" and the "Innovator's Solution."

"We're trying to upset the status quo," says Mangano, who brims with nonstop enthusiasm. "For years we've been patting ourselves on the back and saying we've been serving the same homeless person. It's time to start looking for permanent solutions."

One factor now motivating local officials is a realization of how much the homeless are costing them. "In San Diego, researchers tracked a population of 20 homeless people for almost two years, measuring what they absorbed in free medical care, ambulance services, emergency-room hospital visits, and law enforcement," says Mangano. "They were astonished to discover that every individual was costing the city an average of $200,000 per year. For that kind of money, the city could have bought them each a penthouse apartment. The most dismaying thing was that in the end the people were right back where they started."

What is the council's secret of success this time? The program's slogan--"Housing First"--tells the story. Since the days of the Reagan administration, an argument has raged over whether homelessness is caused by lack of housing or a plethora of personal pathologies. Advocates for the homeless argued "housing, housing, housing," and pointed to alleged cutbacks in federal housing programs by the Reagan administration. This explanation never held up. Although Reagan cut authorizations for new housing, projects in the pipeline continued to come on line. More public housing was completed in the 1980s than in any previous decade. Moreover, the Reagan administration engineered a changeover to federal housing vouchers, which reached far more people than public housing ever did. Meanwhile, conservatives argued that homelessness was the result of personal pathologies--particularly the flood of deinstitutionalized mental patients.

Then Andrew Cuomo, son of New York governor Mario Cuomo, started a counterrevolution. In 1986, with generous assistance from the government, Cuomo founded Housing Enterprises for Low-Income People (HELP), which built boot-camp-like shelters that put people through rigorous drug and alcohol treatment before placing them in jobs and permanent housing. In 1991, the New York City Commission on the Homeless, chaired by Cuomo, published a report, The Way Home: A New Direction in Social Policy, that defied liberal orthodoxy and argued that housing was not the problem. "The very term 'homeless' is a misnomer," said Cuomo. "An apartment doesn't cure a crack addiction."

Cuomo became secretary of housing and urban development under President Clinton and moved his plan--now called the "Continuum of Care"--to the national level. By 1999, HUD was claiming the effort had "helped 300,000 homeless people get housing and jobs to become self-sufficient." Yet somehow the number of homeless people on the street did not seem to decrease.

"Housing First" has now returned to the original idea--that housing is the problem--with a twist. The problem is not that the federal government is not building public housing. The real problem is that cities have been very efficient in eliminating bottom-rung housing through building code enforcement, zoning restrictions, and (in cites such as New York and San Francisco) rent control. All these "reforms" were supposed to upgrade "substandard" housing and improve opportunities for the poor. In fact they worsened conditions for the very poor.

The principal victim of "reform" has been SROs--the single-room occupancy hotels that were the last resort of winos and stumblebums in bygone days. Entrepreneurs used to take old factory floors and other buildings and turn them into "partition hotels" where people could sleep behind thin walls for as little as $2 a night. It might have looked like blight, but it was functional housing for transients. "In Chicago, SRO units declined 80 percent between 1960 and 1980," reported veteran social worker Richard White in Rude Awakenings: What the Homeless Crisis Tells Us (1991). "In the past twenty years, there has been a net loss of 22,000 low-rent units in downtown Seattle. . . . [A]n increase in the number of homeless singles there in the past five years has corresponded directly to the loss of these SROs."

Mangano witnessed the same pattern in Boston. "Governor William Weld commissioned a study, and we found that almost 96 percent of these bottom-rung units had gone out of business during the 1970s and 1980s," he says. "SROs, lodging houses, mom-and-pop rooming houses, all had fallen before campaigns that were supposed to improve housing. At the same time, there was a mirror-image rise in emergency shelters. By taking away bottom-rung housing, we left the poor with nothing."

The Interagency Council is now encouraging cities to reverse this trend and adjust building and zoning codes to tolerate housing once labeled "substandard." Seattle has created 50 new units with a shared kitchen and a bathroom down the hall and 25 more that are nothing but a partitioned room with a bed and a dresser. Indianapolis found it had 20,000 vacant units ripe for rehabilitation. San Francisco is restoring 1,500 apartments in the Tenderloin district through private ownership.

Street people often have to be persuaded to enter such housing. Some bring their shopping carts. Once established, however, they tend to stay. "Our retention rates are about 85 percent," says Mangano. With a home base, the residents can enter drug or alcohol programs or even train for jobs. Eventually they must pay rent. "The whole program costs about $13,000 per person," he says. "It's a lot cheaper than what we were doing before."

Critics argue that the program is skewed toward winos and shopping-bag ladies and will not serve homeless families. That may be true for now, but it's hard to argue with success, and the formula can easily be extended to families as well. The important thing is that somebody has finally found something that works.

"We made progress that is visible, measurable, and quantifiable," says Mangano, anticipating that Ph.D. students will soon be lining up to study this rare public policy success story. Now if only the press will pay a little attention.

William Tucker is author of The Excluded Americans: Homelessness and Housing Policies.

Next Page