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Ending homelessness

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Advocate for homeless lauds Wake County initiative.

By Ret Boney

RALEIGH, N.C. [04.26.04] – When leaders in Raleigh and Wake County announced their intent to develop a 10-year plan to end homelessness, Philip Mangano, the federal government’s top advocate for the homeless, was at their side.

The April 16 announcement was a serious commitment for local leaders and a milestone for Mangano, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

The Raleigh/Wake plan is the 100th local-government initiative in Mangano’s effort to end homelessness.

“Raleigh/Wake County is well-positioned by virtue of having assembled a great team,” says Mangano, “and as the 100th, they can learn from plans that come before them.”

In 2002, President Bush tapped Mangano to lead the council, a partnership of federal agencies assembled by Bush to pool their resources and influence to end homelessness.

The council’s goal is to find a home for every American, beginning with the nation’s roughly 160,000 “chronically” homeless people, those with disabling conditions who have been homeless for at least a year, or who have had several homeless periods over three years.

As part of this effort, Mangano and the council are backing the Samaritan Initiative, a plan conceived by the council and Bush that targets the chronically homeless, and includes $70 million from several federal agencies to be invested in local initiatives.

The plan, part of Bush’s budget, is now before Congress.

“The intent of the Samaritan Initiative,” Mangano says, is to emulate the scriptural Good Samaritan, “to stop for those on the side of the street,” and move them into housing with the associated services they need.

Mangano and the council are building a partnership that extends from the White House to the streets.

The effort includes 20 federal agencies that are part of the council, 45 governors committed to creating similar state-level councils, and 109 local jurisdictions developing their own 10-year plans to end homelessness.

A Boston native and former Los Angeles music industry executive, Mangano’s first real hands-on contact with the homeless was in 1981, when he started a 2˝-year stint as a full-time volunteer server in Boston’s first breadline since the Great Depression.

He began searching out the “poorest of the poor” after experiencing an epiphany of sorts when he saw the 1972 Franco Zeffirelli movie, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.”

Mangano says the movie, about the early life of St. Francis of Assisi, a well-off man in ancient Italy who gave up all possessions to commune with nature and tend the poor, led him to give up his music career in and hit the streets.

“The movie just permeated my being,” says Mangano. “It is still a framer of the work that I do.”

Working the breadline, Mangano learned to listen to homeless people, who, he says, are clear in articulating their needs.

“They didn’t ask for a pill or a program,” he says. “They asked for a place to live.”

This approach of asking consumers what they want has driven much of Mangano’s work.

Instead of “managing” the homeless population, a strategy he says has been the focus of previous efforts, Mangano vows to end homelessness altogether.

Is this a realistic goal?

Mangano points to other seemingly “intractable” social problems and the movements that changed them, such as slavery, the lack of voting rights for women and the denial of civil rights to blacks.

Providing a home for every American is a similar moral, spiritual and economic imperative, he says.

“Our children and grandchildren will understand clearly that every American should have a place to live,” he says.

The key, he says, is to build partnerships involving government, business and philanthropy that will create market-driven strategies to house people and equip them to take part in the economy.

In the two decades since working the breadline, Mangano’s life has been devoted to ending homelessness.

Most recently he served as founding executive director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, a partnership of 80 agencies working to end homelessness.

Now, his focus expands further, to Wake County in North Carolina and the more than 100 locales throughout the U.S. that have joined the effort to end homelessness.

“Our hope,” says Mangano, “is that through expansive and inclusive partnership, we can end chronic homelessness within the next ten years.”

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