Cheering an End to Homelessness

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Chip Chipman / WPN

Members of San Francisco's homeless population gathered in The Bill Graham Auditorium to receive free services, such as phone calls, massages, wheelchair repairs and flu shots.

This morning, the National Alliance to End Homelessness announced the results of the first national count of homeless Americans in a decade. And while the raw data may not be so encouraging, the tone certainly is.

First, the bad news: there are a lot of homeless — nearly 750,000 people, over 40% of whom are part of a family with children. In 10 years, the number hasn't moved much. The last report, a shakier estimate, put the number at anywhere from 444,000 to 842,000. "It certainly doesn't look like there's been a big change," says Nan Roman, the Alliance's president.

Now the good news: Roman and the report's other authors are upbeat. Not relentlessly so, but just enough to signal that they think we can lick this problem: regardless of what story the numbers may tell, the report's first sentence says point-blank that "a movement to end homelessness is under way." They envision the report — which for the first time used a point-in-time count, town by town, to see exactly who was in the shelters and on the streets of America in January 2005 — as the baseline for measuring the march to victory in the years to come.

President Bush's point man on homelessness is also optimistic. In 2002, Philip Mangano became the head of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. In that role, he has not just been an advocate; he has been a celebrated as an "abolitionist," tirelessly preaching that it is within our reach to relegate homelessness to the dustbin of history.

It's tempting, of course, to chide the cheerleading, particularly without any nationwide progress so far to back it up. But homelessness is one of those rare public policy issues where rhetoric really does matter. The main reason people still sleep on the streets in the world's richest country, after all, is that too many people on all sides have given up trying to fix what's broken. "Our organization tries to make it clear that this is a solvable problem," says Roman. "Just saying that it's an outrage hasn't worked."

Few cities have been as chronically demoralized about the homeless as San Francisco. When I lived in San Francisco in the '90s, the sidewalks of downtown were practically paved with cardboard. It wasn't just an eyesore. It was a wound on the body politic, the defining failure of a series of mayors. Hapless Art Agnos was so wildly permissive that scores of homeless set up what critics called "Camp Agnos" in the park in front of City Hall. His successor Frank Jordan swung to the other extreme, using police crackdowns to push vagrants and panhandlers into less obtrusive neighborhoods — a strong-arm tactic that was a rare combination of bad policy and bad politics. Willie Brown was a powerful politician, for his part, but he too was no match for the homeless issue.

Fast forward to today's San Francisco, where city officials think they may have found an exit strategy. If the national picture remains stagnant, San Francisco and a host of other cities have had a tangible breakthrough with a strategy called Housing First. It is exactly what it sounds like: a push to get homeless people into real, permanent homes as the first remedy. No more leaning on food vouchers, cash handouts, city shelters. Just give a guy four walls and some windows and his soul is already on the mend.

Marc Trotz, director of Housing and Urban Health for the city's Department of Public Health, oversees a unique twist on Housing First, using health care dollars to pay for the actual housing costs. Since 2000, they've put over 1500 people into permanent apartments, and 85% of them have stayed for two years or more. They were among the hardest-core "high fliers" at the local emergency rooms, whose frequent trips could rack up a $150,000 ambulance bill in a year, says Trotz. But after they were housed, they wound up in the hospital 60% less often than before. That means millions in savings for the city, even after it provides free rent for its homeless population. "One day of hospitalization at San Francisco General pays for a month of housing," says Trotz.

The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless recently found that participants in a similar Housing First program in Denver used just an average of $11,694 a year in public services, down from $43,239 before they entered the program.

Trotz says that his program has been around since before current mayor Gavin Newsom was elected, but he credits Newsom with setting the tone. "He's projected a much more positive and can-do attitude," says Trotz, "picking up on the approach of Mangano and others."

That kind of positive thinking, says Roman, could help turn the tide and revert America back to the days, just 30 years ago, when large-scale homelessness was unheard of. "There's a whole generation and more for whom homelessness has always been a given in our society," she says. The trick, she argues, is to believe in the possibility of a future, not just a past, without homelessness.