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Philip Mangano

Philip Mangano is the exeuctive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. You can call him "Homeless Czar" for short. Steve Lopez called him for a recent column about ticketing homeless jaywalkers on L.A.'s skid row, and Mangano called the practice "shameful," arguing that "the punitive approach has never worked anywhere in our country."

Mangano came by the Editorial Board Wednesday to talk up his favorite initiative -- getting cities to adopt 10-year programs to get homeless people permanently into housing, using business-world practices under the leadership of city and county executives who can muster all the appropriate stakeholders to the table and hammer out innovative action plans. His assessment of the country's progress on homelessness, it may surprise you, is quite upbeat:

"Generally, as you know, over the last 20 years we've been demoralized on this issue," he said. "The only reports we've had is, 'The numbers are going up.' In this country in the last five years we've moved from being demoralized that the issue is intractable to being re-moralied that our efforts are making a difference. There are visible and measurable, quantifiable changes in the streets, in the neighborhoods and in the lives of homeless people in many cities in the country."

One consistent and interesting theme throughout the discussion was Mangano's claim that L.A. was on the verge of coming to the national forefront on this issue ... under the leadership of former mayor James Hahn. For local observers with long memories, there's nothing like stories that flesh out the city's cyclical interest in, and forgetting of, solving its most daunting problems.

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Mangano: I met with Mayor Hahn on a number of occasions. One time when we went down to skid row, saw the results from some of the police activities that were going on there, about four years ago, and we went to some clean streets, and I had been on those streets not too long before, and I thought "Wow, this is amazing, but let me stop the car, I just want to talk to a couple of these homeless people on the street, I just want to see what their response is." So I went over, I talked to the homeless people, they gave me some directions, I got back in the car with Mayor Hahn -- literally this was happening -- and I told him, "Could you have your driver just take us a bit [that way]?" So, the driver did: we went to a freeway up-ramp, and there was like a chain link fence and then like strips of green material coming down, so you couldn't really look in. So following the directions of these homeless people who are on the s--, you know, the few homeless people who are still out on the street, we went out to this fence, and we [looked in], and of course there were hundreds of homeless people underneath that ramp. [...]

So we started our conversation with it, and then we learned that many of these people were people who had been on the streets in skid row, and basically what they said to us -- we engaged them for 15, 20 minutes, established a little bit of credibility and a relationship -- and they basically said, "We've been in [skid row], you know, we were there, the police came in, we took off, we're here. Well, wait another couple of weeks, things will calm down, and we're gonna go right back there."

Literally on the car ride back from that experience Mayor Hahn comitted to creating the 10-year plan, because he had some instinct and intent around this issue. He subsequently convened a very large group of people, I think led by -- you have a cardinal here or an archbishop? -- The cardinal. The cardinal was part of it, the business community was part of it; providers, advocates, the hospitals. In other words all of those shareholders and stakeholders that we talked about in terms of a mayor convening. He was doing hospital administrators, because of course as you know their emergency rooms are disporportionately impacted and often they have a very different view and difficulty with discharge planning, as you would know better in Los Angeles than anybody. But also mental health and substance-abuse providers who are also disproportionately impacted by the population; police, business community, downtown business associations, the business improvement districts in Hollywood.

They were all at the table, he convened them all; he got them all to the table. Because when a mayor calls shareholders together, they tend to come. Which again distinguishes this kind of effort, this 10-year-planning, from efforts that have been made in the past, where the providers were unable to bring the key people.

Unfortunately as Mayor Hahn's political fortunes waned, uh, the attendance at those meetings waned with it, and many of the people who were critical stakeholders in the issue, to bring a business mindset to this issue -- which is one of the significant mindsets that should [be used] on this issue -- they left the table, and as a result of that eventually the document that was created was much more of an analysis than a strategic plan that had the basics of a business plan. [...]

Jim Newton: So who's doing it well? Which cities have really made substantial strides?

Mangano: Well I always hate to say it in Los Angeles, but San Francisco is doing it well. But apart from San Francisco, Portland, Oregon; Seattle. Chicago has probably the most modest resources -- uh, the most modest outcomes -- but they're doing a good job. The reason why Chicago is particularly doing well even though they don't get large resources is that that mayor has infused so much of his political will, that they better produce results on this issue. That's ... Philadelphia's done a good job; Miami, Atlanta, Dallas has two years of double digit reductions in street homelessness in Dallas. St. Louis is reporting a 36% reduction.

Now if this were just -- if you'll pardon the expression -- this Bush Administration doing all of these studies -- you might have a "You know, what's going on here?" But in fact we simply collect reports from cities; once they implement their plans and they are moving forward, we collect the data that the cities themselves are providing, so each of those cities, they've reported themselves these reductions, we've simply compiled them, we just notice that there was a trend. I saw a couple in a row and I thought, "Are we missing these?" Thankfully, the Web allows you to look at articles over a long period of time, and we realized there was a trend developing in our country that was counter to the trend that had been going on for 20 and 25 years, which is: cities were reporting reductions. So we started to compile those, and there were about 35 cities in our country that are now for the first time in 20 years reporting a reduction of the nubmer of people on their streets, and a reduction of people long-term in their shelters. [...]

Jim Newton: Back to the cities that are succeeding -- L.A.'s not on your list. What should L.A. be doing; what could it emulate from others that have made real progress?

Mangano: Well, I think, I think they need to do a 10-year plan. I think they need to look at the cities who are implementing 10-year plans that are fashioned around business principles, that have gone out and collected the most innovative ideas from around the country. Every city has some innovative ideas that actually get the job done. You can see some of that in L.A. County. But no city has developed all of those innovative ideas, so part of the responsibility of the city is to make sure they're supporting the intiatives that do create results, but then stealing the best ideas from around the country and bringing them to L.A. [...]

And I think it's akin, a little bit, it's back to the future here. It is that commission that mayor Hahn put together years ago that had all of the promise of exactly what's happening in all of these other 10-year committees, that dissipated as his political fortunes dissipated. I think it's a little bit of going back to that, because he had the right stakeholders at the table, they just, it wasn't sustained long enough to actually come up with a plan. [...]

And just to say, finally, I think there is that kind of convergence happening between the city and county. I'm very hopeful that in the not-too-distant future, Los Angeles will move toward creating a 10-year plan fashioned around business principles and to get the business community at the table. That, I believe, will be the beginning of Los Angeles fulfilling the promise of reducing homelessness in the city.
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