'There Have Never Been as Many Poor People in Our Country as There Are Now'

The nation's homelessness czar in the George W. Bush administration says that programs enacted back then have had a dramatic effect on cutting the chronically homeless population, but warns that families are increasingly being left out in the cold as the economy struggles to recover.

"There have never been as many poor people in our country as there are now," Philip F. Mangano told PJM today, adding that the "highest number ever in the history of our country" are living in "deep poverty," which is 50 percent below the poverty line and under.

"One of the great indicators of homelessness is poverty," he said. "Poverty is the waystation before you fall into homelessness." And with the economic indicators such as the unemployment rate stagnant as they have been, "you can anticipate more people falling into homelessness."

They're startling, tragic facts that rarely make headlines in a campaign dominated by conversations about the middle class and a Congress inundated in debate over middle- and upper-income tax cut extensions.

"The poverty rate has never jumped higher than in the past few years and the media is silent on it," Mangano said. "Most media coverage is focused on middle-class trauma during the recession, not focused on the very poor."

The National Alliance to End Homelessness, a federation of public and private agencies that reports to the administration and Congress, noted in January's annual report that the homelessness rate declined by 1 percent between 2009 and 2011. The annual Hunger and Homelessness Survey released in December by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, though, found an average 6 percent rise in homelessness from September 2010 to August 2011, with a 16 percent jump in homeless families.

In the mayors' survey, unemployment led the list of homelessness causes among both families and homeless adults.

"If we want to make progress in terms of pulling people away from the precipice then it's very important that the engine of our economy get humming again," said Mangano, stressing that especially means decreasing stubbornly high jobless rates. "The restoration of our economy is an important ingredient in the long-term solution."

Mangano became Bush's executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness in 2002 and ushered in a new way of approaching the goal to end homelessness: looking at the problem through a business lens instead of a social services lens. The distinction, he said, is attending to the immediate needs of the homeless in a social-services capacity versus looking at that population and thinking how to solve their homelessness.

"No longer are we wandering in the wilderness, wondering what might work," he said. "We actually know what to do."

It was the 10-year-plan templates, pulling together federal agencies, governors, and mayors, that were put in place during the Bush administration that Mangano credits with making a serious dent in the chronically homeless population -- a 37 percent decrease between 2005 and 2009.

Overall homelessness decreased 12 percent during this period.

The basics of thinking about it like a businessman? Invest in innovative solutions that have proven results with hard data to back them up. And that meant stable, long-term housing before quick fixes.

Mangano pulled out the cost-benefit analysis: The housing-first strategy costs between $12,000 and $25,000 per person, per year. It can cost between $35,000 and $150,000 per person, per year "literally to sustain a person in homelessness" with "random ricocheting" from one temporary solution to the next.

"You don't need to be Warren Buffett or even Suze Orman to figure out which of those is the better investment," he said.

For the first time, the issue of homelessness was spoken in the vernacular of both politicians and the business community -- and what Bush defined early on as a signature policy initiative was off to a running start. Each year, when department chiefs came to the budget table to make a case for their funding, the programs to end homelessness walked away with more cash -- eight consecutive years of increased resources for the homeless under the Bush administration.