End Chronic Homelessness 

Mayor Bill Purcell says Nashville can end chronic homelessness in 10 years. It's a noble goal, but can it be done?

Mayor Bill Purcell says Nashville can end chronic homelessness in 10 years. It's a noble goal, but can it be done?

It's a chilly Saturday morning in December. Several dozen people are gathered at Riverfront Park for the Homeless Memorial Service, which is organized every year by the Nashville Homeless Power Project. There are the twenty-somethings from Food Not Bombs who serve steaming plates of pancakes and eggs out of big buckets to anyone who's hungry. There are warmly bundled homeless advocates who work for nonprofits around town. There are government officials decked out in their weekend "business casual" attire. There are a handful of religious leaders.

And there are the homeless. Sloppily dressed, some of them stand around muttering to themselves; many look like they could use a bath. In layers of flannel and jeans and hooded sweatshirts, they chat in groups, smiling, while a few hang back and keep to themselves. The food is warm and the morning sun brilliant; people with a common concern for a heart-wrenching social issue have come together, and because of this, you can sense a palpable cheerfulness among those assembled downtown. They're happy to be here, together, this morning.

Of course, for most of these folks, homelessness is more than abstract. It has a human face. It's the state of their lives or the condition of their friends' lives. They have gathered not to deal with homelessness generally but to remember and celebrate friends and loved ones specifically. People like Koran Hogan, the dear friend of homeless advocate (and formerly homeless man) John Zirker. People like Victor Horton, a 41-year-old man who finally got a home through an affordable housing initiative only to die, at home, in his bed.

"But I guess at least he had his own home at the time," says Howard Allen, a homeless man who's become something of a spokesperson for Nashville's homeless in the past year. Like many homeless people, Howard is grateful for small things—and over the years he's become good at being optimistic. So throughout his six months of service on the Mayor's Task Force to End Chronic Homelessness, he always went out of his way to say how grateful he was just to participate, how encouraged he was to have so many people focused on the important task at hand. He was also critical, challenging the mayor and a bunch of big-shot officials to bring more homeless people to the decision-making table.

One month later, Howard is again sitting at what is supposed to be a decision-making table. It's a Friday morning and he's managed to find a ride to the Howard School Building, where Metro's Department of Social Services is housed. A dozen or so people have gathered around a conference table to discuss the structure of a government commission on homelessness that they hope will be formed by summer. The vice mayor is there. The CEO of the United Way of Metropolitan Nashville is there. The head of the Metro Development and Housing Agency is there. Some homeless advocates are there. They're discussing the wording of bylaws. How many Metro Council members should be on this commission? How often should it meet? How many powerful people should serve? How many homeless?

Howard looks like he's about to fall asleep. And who could blame him? His friends on the street were getting sick and dying last year while well-intentioned people debated the finer points of housing models and budgetary authority, of "outcome-based funding approaches" and the "alignment and realignment of policies, services and funding decisions." He served on a task force that set up a committee to set up a commission. It's maddening and mind-numbing. And the whole time, real people are freezing, getting sick and dying.

This is what happens when a bureaucracy tries to deal with a complicated issue like homelessness. On one level, the problem is so simple: homeless people lack homes. But in reality it's much more complex: the homeless are people who have fallen through all sorts of safety nets. Addiction, illness, debt and crime, all types of personal tragedies, poor choices and bad luck conspire to keep people on the streets. They become distrustful of institutions and afraid of responsibility. They need help and comprehensive support—not too much, but not too little. A delicate calibration of assistance and independence for each individual.

Unfortunately, the world doesn't look like that. Institutions are impersonal; people become data, and that data gets lost. With government, one hand often doesn't know what the other is doing. People get arrested just to have a place to sleep. In the private sector, the homeless are often an impediment to business. In the nonprofit sector, they may become the lifeblood of an organization: their dependency becomes the justification for someone's job.

Nashville's homeless men, women and children are sad stories whose successes are small and occur from day to day. They are our annoyances. They are our crazies. They are our criminals. They are our employees. They are our veterans. They are our children. They are our neighbors.

They are ours. And Mayor Bill Purcell says he recognizes that and is committed to helping them—us—get life back in order. But one year into a high-profile effort to end chronic homelessness, Nashville has a utopian plan but precious little strategy to implement it. What's more, there's no increased Metro money in sight for another year-and-a-half. It's commitment at the speed of bureaucracy; the kind of talk that means very little to the freezing people at Riverfront Park who will gather next December to mourn lost friends, just like they've done for so many chilly Decembers before that. While we talk, they die.

George W. Bush, of all people, has a plan. Or more precisely, his surrogates at the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness have a template for a plan. Focus on the chronically homeless—those people who live on the streets for more than a year or who cycle through repeated episodes of street life—and that will improve the situation for homeless and homed alike, they say. That's because chronically homeless people consume a disproportionate amount of resources dedicated to homelessness. These are the people who visit the emergency room or veterans' hospital too much or who get sent to jail when what they really need is treatment for a mental illness.

The Interagency Council is run by a Bush appointee named Philip Mangano, a short man with wavy gray hair that slicks back from his forehead all the way to the nape of his neck. A snappy dresser, the middle-aged Mangano walks with a cane but does not speak softly: he uses an enthusiasm that's almost contagious to sell an idea. If you can get past his snaky salesman persona, it becomes clear that Mangano actually knows what he's talking about—or he's repeated the same message so many times that he's become convincing.

Twice last month, Mangano visited Nashville. The first time, he squeezed into the Campus for Human Development, Charles Strobel's Eighth Avenue homeless care facility, along with the governor, a bunch of state officials and some homeless folks. He stood smiling as Gov. Bredesen signed an executive order creating a state interagency council on homelessness. That day, Tennessee became the 50th of 54 states and provinces to create such an agency, in a hurried move that some suspected was designed to deflect the focus from TennCare's troubles.

On his second visit, the lively Mangano delivered a motivational speech to city officials, homeless advocates and business leaders at the mayor's affordable housing summit. This year, Purcell devoted the morning-long program to unveiling the city's Strategic Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, and Mangano was there to cheer everyone on. Self-congratulation and praise were effusive, rhetoric was hopeful, heads nodded in agreement. The mayor even likened the event to a church service.

And indeed, Mangano was preaching to the choir. The 150 or so people in the downtown library auditorium were, for the most part, believers in the Mangano method—at least publicly. That means they agree that the way to help the homeless is to convene a high-level committee of government department heads, business leaders, nonprofit directors, religious leaders and even a homeless person or two. (Purcell didn't include any homeless people on his initial task force, an embarrassing oversight he quickly corrected after advocates complained.) These folks get together en masse and in various subcommittees for six months and hash out a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness. The Interagency Council makes it so simple that it even provides a 26-page instruction manual, complete with cheesy clip art, for city officials to follow in developing their very own task force. So far, 170 cities and municipalities have—in part because federal funds may soon depend on it.

Mangano, a veteran businessman, manages to get the ear of both city officials and business leaders around the country in part through charisma and in part through bottom-line-driven bizspeak. It's familiar rhetoric about "investing resources in programs that produce results." And sometimes it's alliterative, as in "planful partnerships, innovative ideas and strategic solutions."

What it all means when you cut through the Seven Habits talk is that traditional attempts to fix the problem of homelessness have failed. Rather than throw more money at the problem, Mangano encourages people to step back and look at the issue afresh, without the blinders of a bureaucratic status quo. And he can engage people who see homelessness as a moral and social blight, like he does, just as well as he can relate to folks who see homelessness as a drain on resources, like he does. Bleeding heart or selfish capitalist, he's your man. Mangano, uniquely positioned, makes Democrats jealous.

Kevin Barbieux is famous. In recent years he's garnered national media attention as "the homeless guy," a streetwise Nashvillian who told the world stories of his nomadic life via frequent, deeply personal posts on his blog. His Web site— thehomelessguy.blogspot.com—currently gets 500 hits a day, and he has something of a cult following online. Along with Howard Allen, Kevin served on the mayor's task force to end chronic homelessness.

But for now, he can't end his own chronic homelessness, famous or not. Housing, on the off chance that it's available, always comes with strings attached; it's hard to get to and from temporary employment; illnesses of the street, a life of cold weather and sleep deprivation, are legion. For a while last year, Kevin chronicled his battle with an open sore on his foot: in the absence of medical care, the injury became debilitating. Life on the street has a tendency to make mountains out of molehills.

Not long ago, Kevin, who's currently sporting a gray beard to guard against the winter chill, took up knitting. Although he's new to the endeavor, his goal is to knit enough scarves to provide a very modest income for himself. The project is called Knitting a Home, and between him, his friends at the Downtown Presbyterian Church, his friends at Café Coco and some other warm souls, he thinks the plan might just work—on a good day. Of course, for Kevin, and for others who eke out a life on the streets and in public spaces, happiness comes incrementally. "I am feeling good about myself and about the future," Kevin posted on his blog just before Christmas, "and I believe things are getting better, not just for myself, but for everyone."

When Nashville's 29-member task force began meeting last June, it was tough to figure out why each local big-shot showed up. For most, it was a mix of concern for the homeless and the understanding that when the mayor asks you to do something, you don't say no. But whatever their reason, everyone was crowded around the table at Vanderbilt's Wyatt Center that Thursday morning with big resource notebooks and name placards in front of them.

It didn't take long for Charles Strobel, the longtime homeless advocate and former Catholic priest, to articulate the skepticism that several folks felt. "I'm not sure we don't need a fifth work group called 'marketing' or 'selling proposals' or something," he said after the egg-headed Vanderbilt facilitator listed the four subgroups of the task force. "We've done five or six studies just like this and they all sit on the shelves."

He was making the point that without an effort to generate public support, whatever the task force produces will be meaningless—another blue-ribbon panel report gathering dust. But first, a feel-good photo op before everyone goes back to the same old way of doing things. Would this task force be any different?

At first, things didn't look good. The housing work group took 15 minutes to agree on a meeting time; busy people, it seems, have cluttered calendars. Later, the task force found itself in philosophical and strategic debates about whether it should recognize housing as a fundamental right. (It didn't, but members decided to include that portion of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the final report.) Some members felt the task force wasn't given enough time to do its work: in little more than three months, the group was supposed to have a final draft of the strategic plan prepared.

But sure enough, they finished on time and presented their report at the mayor's summit in December. The final draft is full of bureaucratic and corporate jargon, but it does make some concrete recommendations. Most importantly, it adopts the permanent supportive housing model for dealing with homelessness. That approach puts emphasis on placing homeless people in low-cost housing they can stay in forever rather than a crisis shelter where they are kicked out after a predetermined period of time. Then services like health care, substance abuse treatment and job placement are brought to them rather than the other way around. It's a model that's proven effective in other cities.

The plan presents a whole host of other initiatives, including a community court that would deal with root issues of crime like addiction and mental illness rather than simply incarcerating offenders and clogging up the justice system. It also recommends retooling and broadening the health care system available to the homeless, improving public transportation availability, launching job training and readiness programs and implementing a planned citywide homeless information organization system, among other things.

Make no mistake: it's an ambitious list of recommendations. "The plan is an extraordinary document because it was pulled together in such a short period of time by people who don't normally work together," says John Lozier, executive director of the Nashville-based National Health Care for the Homeless Council. Lozier, who chaired the task force's health work group, recognizes that the plan is still in its infancy. "There's a lot of work that needs to be done around specificity." Or in the less diplomatic words of one task force member: "It's still just half-baked."

Vice Mayor Howard Gentry likes to tell the story of his "namesake," Howard Allen. Gentry is a few years older than Allen, but they grew up together in the Jefferson Street area, and Allen, Gentry says, would always follow the older boys around. "Howard was an athlete," he says, "and he kind of ran around behind us when he was growing up. When I managed a swimming pool at the Northwest YMCA, he was there swimming every day. His dad taught me. Howard has been in my life a long time."

But at some point, their paths diverged. After graduating from Pearl High and then TSU in 1974, Gentry became a banker, insurance agent and, ultimately, vice president at TSU. Allen, for his part, went to Peabody Demonstration School (now University School), Father Ryan and TSU; he eventually became sidetracked by bad luck and bad decisions. His parents died, and he found himself with nowhere to go. Today Gentry is the city's second most powerful elected official; Allen is homeless.

As the vice mayor said at the mayor's summit, in what some called his most passionate civic sermon to date, homelessness can sneak up on anyone. "Does it matter, Phil Valentine, how they got there?" he asked rhetorically. "There were circumstances that created this. There were circumstances that most of us in this room couldn't understand." And then, Gentry added his own powerful realization: "It could have been me.

Maybe it was a little premature to do all that back-patting last month. After all, even "extraordinary" documents don't give people places to sleep, jobs and decent health care. Some folks aren't convinced that this incarnation of a city effort to deal with homelessness will be any different than the several planning attempts that came before it, dating back to 1984. "Every report that's been released for the past 10 years says we need to create more permanent, supportive, affordable housing," says Brian Huskey, a former MDHA street outreach worker who was peripherally involved in the latest plan's creation and the authoring of a few before that. "That's just such a big 'duh.'... If it's the same bureaucrats that have been quote-unquote leading the charge on these issues for the past 10 years—and they don't have any new, substantive research to work from—then I don't see how things are going to change."

He agrees that the current plan is a little half-baked. "With the strategic plans I've worked on in the past, we all came away with a charge and a set of responsibilities and a budget. But this one didn't have any of that."

Whether the Bush administration's quick-plan method will work remains to be seen. The devil is in the small detail of how this thing is—or isn't—implemented.

Remember the meeting in which Howard Allen looked like he was going to fall asleep? That's the committee charged with setting up a new Metro homelessness commission, as recommended by the strategic plan. Such an entity, assuming the bill authorizing it travels unscathed through the Metro Council, will bear the responsibility for implementing the plan over the next 10 years. Comprised of government appointees, council members, nonprofit leaders, business people and, yes, homeless or formerly homeless people, this commission will have a huge job.

But how much credibility will it have with the private sector, whose philanthropy it's supposed to harness?

And how much authority will it have to tell government agencies how to spend their money? Finally, where's that money supposed to come from?

Not the federal government, says Lozier, who at the December summit publicly questioned the Bush administration's commitment to funding programs that benefit the poor and homeless. Citing cuts to Section 8 funds—federal money that subsidizes low-cost housing—Lozier says the current administration is shifting the burden for dealing with homelessness to the state and local level. "It leaves small cities and local governments in the lurch," he says. "We're scrambling at those levels to figure out how to coordinate increasingly scarce resources to deal with a problem that's growing greater and greater."

Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell, who serves as co-chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness, agrees. "I don't know what the president is going to recommend this year," he says. "I'm hopeful that he's going to recommend additional resources, not reductions that increase homelessness." Purcell also points the finger at Gov. Phil Bredesen, who he says cut funds for housing. "I'm going to remain hopeful that the governor will restore funds there as we move forward."

Purcell, ever hopeful, emphasizes that he's committed to implementing the plan's recommendations and says his efforts to end chronic homelessness will be judged by the "real targets and real timeline" of the plan. Year one of that timeline is ticking away, and it's got a lot of demands. Among them: by July 1, the homelessness commission will have its first meeting. (It can take six precious months just to set the thing up.) By early 2006, it will have analyzed funding sources—federal, state, local and private—and requests for cash will start flowing in all directions.

Who knows if that cash will be there, though. On a local level—which is where the fund burden seems to be shifting—it'll take a mayor who's willing to budget and earmark the dollars for these initiatives, which traditionally aren't political crowd-pleasers. Forty million dollars of affordable housing is currently needed for the chronically homeless alone, according to the plan, and that's a low estimate. Is someone going to get everyday citizens behind this plan? Is someone going to glad-hand Nashville's moneyed classes into supporting it? And who's going to get housing developers and service providers on board?

A mid-level commission made up of people who have day jobs won't be able to do all that, even if it tries. Which pretty much leaves new Metro Social Services director Gerri Robinson acting as a de facto "homeless czar." It's not that she's not capable; it's that she's new to town and has plenty of other responsibilities on her plate. "There's this friendly touch that you need in Nashville, and it remains to be seen if she's got that," one task force member says of Robinson.

So why not appoint a high-profile Nashvillian with credibility in the business community to organize support for this issue? Something like a local version of Philip Mangano. Or like Tom Dunning, Dallas's new homeless czar, a CEO and former mayoral candidate charged with implementing their task force's plan. The plan needs both an ambassador to the business community and a face for the public; while Purcell thinks it's him, it's not. He's got other things to do.

"We need community education," Charlie Strobel announced at a task force meeting in August. He compared it to the outreach and civic support generated by (and for) the Titans, a less compelling issue than homelessness, to be sure. "If we don't have that, we'll release this report and there will be a collective yawn, a press release and maybe a press conference. We'll just have another book for our shelves."

Homeless advocates like Strobel know all too well that apathy and, in some cases, resistance will continue to reign among the public unless someone shares the news with them that it's actually cheaper (not to mention more humane) to care for the chronically homeless systematically than to continue paying for their overuse of the safety net. Strobel, moreover, would want you to know that homeless people, like the rest of us, aren't just a pack of lazy thieves and panhandlers, as they're often portrayed.

If Purcell won't appoint a homeless czar to lead the charge, some suggest Vice Mayor Howard Gentry should step into the role. His relationships with business leaders and faith groups, the black community and white, powerful and powerless alike—wedded with his strong oratory and a message that humanizes the homeless—make him an ideal candidate. He's an inoffensive optimist who doesn't mind preaching—and as cat-herder-in-chief he knows how to deal with the Metro Council. "If Howard would match his powerful rhetoric on this issue with his political capital, he'd be a great choice," says one task force member.

Someone's going to have to spend some political capital on this issue if any money's going to be spent on it. When it comes to homelessness, the kind of safe leadership that takes no risks up front but plenty of credit later on isn't welcome. "These kind of broad-based coalitions are nice," says Huskey, the former outreach worker. "I enjoyed some of the collegiality we had in the groups, and we had some broad discussions. But at the end of the day, it's like, who's going to be in charge of this thing?"

It's a fair question that needs to be answered soon—while the plan is young and people are still hopeful about it. Mark Desmond, CEO of the United Way of Metropolitan Nashville and a task force work group chair, counts himself among the hopeful and says he's ready to get to the hard work of implementation. "This is a town with thousands of capable, compassionate people," he says. "We've got a mayor and a council and a group of people who are committed to solving this problem. There's just no reason we can't do it. It's unconscionable if we can't pull this off. I mean, come on. Give me a damn reason why we can't do this."

But you get the sense that Desmond, like all the capable, compassionate, hard-working and well-intentioned people involved with the plan—and involved with the fight against homelessness in Nashville for many years—has been around 10-year plans, commissions and task forces before. "Saying it is one thing; doing it is another," he says. "We'll just have to see."


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