Skip to main content

Fewer homeless, a Bush legacy

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
updated 3:45 PM EDT, Mon April 29, 2013
The abolition of homelessness has become a possibility due to the efforts of George W. Bush's administration, David Frum says.
The abolition of homelessness has become a possibility due to the efforts of George W. Bush's administration, David Frum says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: Despite the Great Recession, fewer people are living on the street
  • Frum: Why isn't homelessness getting worse? Because of the policies of George W. Bush
  • He says under Bush the simple solution of providing a home ("housing first") worked
  • Frum: Abolition of homelessness has become a real possibility, thanks to Bush

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and a post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- Have you noticed that homelessness isn't worse? Here we are, living through the most protracted joblessness crisis since the Great Depression -- and surprisingly, fewer people are living on the street.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that the number of the chronically homeless declined by 30% between 2005 and 2007. You might have expected the numbers to spike again when the financial crisis hit but no. Since 2007, the number of chronic homeless has dropped another 19%.

A broader measure of the number of homeless counts the number of people living out of doors on one randomly chosen night. That broader measure has also improved through the economic crisis. Between January 2011 and January 2012, homelessness among veterans dropped by 7%.

David Frum
David Frum

To what or whom do we owe this good news?

In very large part, we owe it to the president whose library opened in Dallas last week: George W. Bush.

For three decades, we have debated what causes homelessness and how to deal with it. Is homelessness a mental health problem? A substance abuse problem? A problem caused by gentrification and urban redevelopment? Or something else again?

The Bush administration substituted a much simpler idea -- an idea that happened to work. Whatever the cause of homelessness, the solution is ... a home.

In 2002, Bush appointed a new national homeless policy czar, Philip Mangano. A former music agent imbued with the religious philosophy of St. Francis of Assisi, Mangano was seized by an idea pioneered by New York University psychiatrist Sam Tsemberis: "housing first."

The "housing first" concept urges authorities to concentrate resources on the hardest cases -- to move them into housing immediately -- and only to worry about the other problems of the homeless after they first have a roof over their heads. A 2004 profile in The Atlantic nicely summarized Tsemberis' ideas: "Offer them (the homeless) the apartment first, he believes, and you don't need to spend years, and service dollars, winning their trust."

Many old school homeless advocates resisted Mangano's approach. They were impelled by two main objections:

1. They believed that homelessness was just the most extreme form of a problem faced by low-income people generally -- a lack of affordable housing for low-income people. Focusing resources on the nation's hardest cases would (these advocates feared) distract the federal government from the bigger project of subsidizing better housing for millions of people who did not literally live in the streets.

2. By 2002, the nation had been worrying about homelessness for several decades. Countless programs from state and local agencies responded to some separate part of the problem; tens of thousands of people earned their livings in those state and local agencies, disposing of massive budgets. "Housing first" threatened to disrupt this vast industry. "Housing first" was comparatively cheap, for one thing: a homeless shelter might look squalid, but it cost a great deal to operate -- more, oftentimes, than a proper apartment with kitchen and bath. The transition to "housing first" threatened jobs and budgets across the country.

There was only one counterargument to these objections: "Housing first" worked. It worked from the start, and it worked fast. It worked so well that the Obama administration has now claimed the approach as its own, even keeping Mangano on the job for the first weeks of the new administration.

Bush remains one of the more controversial and less popular ex-presidents. But if in the next days you happen to walk down a city street, take a moment to notice how many men or women are sleeping there. Results will vary from place to place, but on average, there are probably fewer than half as many as a decade ago. The job is not completed yet. But for the first time since the 1970s, the abolition of homelessness has become a real and near possibility. Whatever else you think of the 43rd president, that achievement is part of Bush's legacy, too.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT