Philip Mangano's remedies sound positive but are punitive in practice.
Dateline: Tuesday, June 19, 2007
by Cathy Crowe
Philip Mangano, appointed by President George Bush in 2002 as the Executive Director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, is not content to contain his work to the United States' problems of epidemic levels of homelessness; instead he is spending an unusual amount of time in Canada promoting the American method of dealing with the "chronic homeless". Mr Mangano has recently been in Vancouver, Calgary (three times since winter), Red Deer, Toronto, Ottawa (he's returning in August) and Montreal, preaching the notion of a "Ten Year" plan to end homelessness with the seemingly positive message of "housing first." The underlying principles of "housing first" however, are ensuring a reduction in reliance and dependence on shelters and emergency services, targeting the "chronics", and creating a business plan with measurable and cost-effective outcomes.
In response to my February 2007 Newsletter entitled Dismantling Downtown, Mr Mangano sent me an email where he modestly noted, "Your recent reference to my potential impact in Toronto, I fear, is a bit exaggerated. While I have spoken there and met briefly with the Mayor, as of this date I am unaware of any jurisdictionally led, community based ten year planning effort there". He went on to say, "I am sorry that apparently your city, like Los Angeles, has not yet adopted a Ten Year Plan or engaged in Project Homeless Connect which are the innovative initiatives that we have disseminated across our country."
Mangano's policies involve "Weapons of Mass Displacement" that sweep homeless people out of sight.
Mr Mangano shouldn't be so modest. He recently spoke to 2,000 people in attendance at the Big City Mayors Caucus (BCMC) of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. BCMC member cities include Vancouver, Surrey, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Brampton, Hamilton, Kitchener, London, Mississauga, Ottawa, Windsor, Toronto, Gatineau, Montréal, Laval, Québec, Longueuil, Halifax and St John's. The City of Toronto has just announced it is developing a 10-year Affordable Housing Action Framework: 2008 - 2018.
Michael Shapcott and I had a chance to hear Mr Mangano in Calgary earlier in May. He really is a remarkable speaker — you could almost say evangelical — preaching the issues of health, economics and the social evils of homelessness. The trouble is that the American approach is obviously not working. It's a game of smoke and mirrors. So why on earth are our municipal and national leaders looking to the United States for solutions on homelessness?
As Michael Shapcott explains: "So, what's wrong with this picture? While Mangano has been piling up frequent flier points visiting every part of the US to convince state and local governments that they need to take up the responsibility for a "housing first" policy for the homeless, his political boss — President Bush — has been gutting the US federal government's funding for housing. This year alone, there are massive cuts to seniors' supportive housing and disabled housing funding. The US federal housing program for people with AIDS will help about 67,000 people this year — yet an estimated 500,000 people living with HIV / AIDS desperately need housing help.
The problem is so bad that even the rather staid Joint Centre for Housing Studies at Harvard University has proclaimed in its latest annual State of the Nation's Housing that affordable housing and homelessness have reached their worst levels ever, and funding cuts by the federal government are the chief culprit.
While Canadian cities are looking at the Bush administration's approach to homelessness, the fact that the Bush administration is cutting funding to housing seems lost on Mangano's Canadian hosts. American homeless advocacy organizations in the US such as the National Coalition for the Homeless report this decade as being worse than the Great Depression for homeless people. In addition, the United States is increasingly relying on what has been dubbed "Weapons of Mass Displacement" — policies and funding decisions that limit necessary life-saving supports and spaces for people who are homeless. For example "no-feeding laws" in some American parks, increased policing and ticketing measures in downtown cores, street sweeps, removing public benches, closing public parks at night, using public works trucks to hose sleeping people down, fingerprinting homeless people who use certain shelters, all practices that create further hardships and worsen displacement.
As my friend, and documentary filmmaker Laura Sky notes, "Mangano is charismatic and compelling in naming our own collective wish — a home for every resident. At the same time, his solutions are part and parcel of the conservative federal, provincial and municipal policies that brought us the problems we're experiencing right now. The mantra of those policies is: cut services, they're inefficient; cut supports, they're too expensive; eliminate shelters, they're a blight on our cities. We need housing instead, the argument goes — at the expense of support for those who will be swept into that housing. All this without addressing the economic and social conditions, which create the need for shelters.
In Canada it's the same thing. We are witnessing an almost fetishized emphasis on research, including street counts and investigations into panhandlers' needs, new by-laws against panhandling and by-laws restricting where homeless people can sleep, reduction of funding to programs that do outreach to people who are homeless, and a withdrawal of funding for emergency day and night shelters. Toronto alone has lost over 300 shelter beds just this past winter and it continues to rely on its Streets to Homes program as an answer to visible street homelessness. There are many reports that people who are housed through this program suffer greatly from hunger and isolation and remain at great risk of becoming or do become homeless again.
The Toronto Disaster Relief Committee recently held a press conference to release new findings on Toronto's Streets to Homes program including the findings of their investigative trip to New York City, which was hosted by the National Coalition for the Homeless. Excerpts from the press conference can be downloaded here courtesy of John Bonnar.
Journalist Linda McQuaig, in a recent Toronto Star article titled "Wrong way to end homelessness", compared the Bush-Mangano model of weaning people who are homeless off temporary shelter and food supports and moving them into housing to Toronto's Streets to Homes program which emphasizes focusing energies on the visible street homeless without the supports to make the housing work.
For more on Mangano and the US housing scene, check out the Wellesley Institute backgrounder posted in the housing and homelessness section at the web site below.
Cathy Crowe, Street Nurse, is co-founder of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee and is currently a citizen member of the Toronto Board of Health. She is a recent recipient of the Atkinson Economic Justice Fellowship.