Homeless advocate does the right thing

Dennis Culhane

Photo by Mark Stehle

When representatives from federal agencies within President Bush’s administration gathered to discuss how to end chronic homelessness, they tapped a social activist and Penn professor for advice.

Dennis Culhane, associate professor of social welfare policy in the School of Social Work, never imagined himself wanting to work for a Republican administration, let alone having them ask him for advice. But Culhane responded enthusiastically when he was asked to be a consultant in the spring of 2003 to the Interagency Council on Homelessness, a federal agency committed to housing the homeless. In July of 2002, Culhane was also invited by the council to make a presentation he called a condensed version of his freshman seminar on homelessness.

Culhane agreed to participate because he saw it as an opportunity to make progress on behalf of those who may not have a voice. “The issue is more important than me,” he said simply.

As one of the foremost scholars on homelessness, Culhane presented his finding that the chronic homeless in the U.S. comprise less than half of the total number of those without a home, but use 50 percent of emergency shelter beds. “The research that my team and I have done has shown the chronic homeless population is a relatively small and finite group,” he said.

So what should the Bush administration do, if it is willing to fund a change? Find homes for 150,000 people who are chronically without a place to live. Based on Culhane’s research from 2002, the cost of providing housing for the chronically homeless nearly offsets the cost of shelter, jail and emergency services. Culhane discovered that when provided with housing, people are less likely to require these services.

“ If we can make an argument of relative cost neutrality, it keeps us in the game, so to speak,” he said. While Culhane noted that this solution would still cost money in the end, “these are not huge expenses and you’re making a huge difference in the quality of life in a group of people who are disenfranchised.”

This is where the homeless advocates come into play, because they cultivate contacts and maintain interest in the cause inside complicated and large federal agencies. While it remains to be seen if the council’s plan, based on Culhane’s expert advice and research, will be funded in President Bush’s 2005 budget proposal, he said it was fascinating to witness the shifting power dynamics and conflicts between approximately 20 participating agencies, including the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs. “There are still going to be winners and losers,” he said, referring to the President’s budget proposal. “We’ll see where it goes. It was very interesting for me to watch the political debate.”

The Culhane team’s study on the cost-neutrality of public services and housing for the homeless is now part of mainstream thinking. Initially, however, some homeless advocates were threatened by Culhane’s findings. “Some people find it hard to let go of the fact that people just need resources,” specifically, places to live, he said. “[That is] hard for some people to accept.”

Culhane hopes that solutions to chronic homelessness will remain in the minds of the federal agency representatives and land in Bush’s budget proposal. “One good thing about Washington—it is an annual budget process.”

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Originally published on December 11, 2003