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Helping the homeless with more than soup or a blanket

U.S. leaders examine the social, economic and political challenges facing policymakers

by Charli Engelhorn
homeless person
A conference held at USC touched on many issues related to current and future homeless populations. (Photo/courtesy of heclifebuilders.org)

Can homelessness be abolished?

The question was the focus of government officials and organizational partners attending a roundtable discussion hosted by the USC School of Social Work.

Assistant Professor Ben Henwood, a member of the school’s Homelessness, Housing, and Social Environment research cluster, talked about the long-standing effort to finish a mission “that no one thought was a real possibility 10 years ago.”

The hope is to take what we know about housing interventions and apply them to youth.

Ben Henwood

Much of that effort can be attributed to Philip Mangano, who in 2009 left his position as head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a position he held under the second George W. Bush administration from 2002 to 2009.

During his tenure with the federal government, Mangano advocated for ending chronic homelessness through housing and counseling rather than a symptomatic focus of temporary shelter and meal solutions.

“We dare use the term ‘abolish’ when discussing homelessness because we have empirically seen those people — who we once thought could only be helped with soup or a blanket — recover, achieve stable housing and move forward in their lives,” Mangano said. “They are no longer ricocheting among various expensive behavioral and mental health services.

“Now it not only makes sense morally and spiritually to reduce homelessness, but it also makes sense economically, which serves as a means to motivate political will,” he continued. “That will combined with data and research allows us to begin to actually talk seriously about and see the ending of homelessness around the country.”

Henwood steps in

After leaving his post, Mangano created the American Round Table to Abolish Homelessness, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization. Mangano, who held the first serious discussion on the topic in 2013 at Harvard University, wanted to bring the colloquy to the West Coast, which is where Henwood stepped in.

“The meeting felt like a good match for our cluster,” said Henwood, who used a $5,000 team-building grant from the Southern California Center for Translational Science Institute to support the two-day event.

Topics touched on many issues related to current and future homeless populations, including the Affordable Care Act and how it relates to housing initiatives, such as Housing First, a program that provides housing as a first step to create a more stable environment for other long-term health needs, such as mental health and substance abuse counseling.

Financing was a big point of interest for the attendees, Henwood said.

Participants discussed newer strategies related to financing successful housing programs and how to acquire private money and investors to support them. They also looked at age trends in homelessness and what that means for future program needs and the advent of a new population of chronic homeless.

“A cohort of older adults, mostly baby boomers, made up the chronic homeless we saw in the ’80s,” Henwood said. “These people have only gotten older and will soon no longer be with us. However, now we’ve identified that transitional-age youth are the likely new cohort of chronically homeless.”

Dean Flynn discusses Grand Challenges

Henwood suggested that lessons taken from the older cohort can be applied to prevent these transitional-age youth from becoming chronically homeless. The school’s research cluster is currently investigating issues of aging in homelessness and the role housing plays to support this population.

“The hope is to take what we know about housing interventions and apply them to youth,” Henwood said. “I think this point was a big eye-opener for some people.”

One of the biggest accomplishments at the colloquy was in response to a speech delivered by Marilyn L. Flynn, dean of the School of Social Work.

Flynn discussed the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare’s Grand Challenges for Social Work Initiative, a movement to set the future goals and trends in the field of social work and toward community engagement and support.

Mangano said the dean challenged participants to put the notion of housing in the frame of social work.

“We were touched by her authenticity and promotion of giving housing needs a deeper contemplation within the whole realm of social work concerning curriculum and practice,” Mangano said.
“It’s an important avenue for those of us interested in the issue.”

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