2009 Citizen Services

Michael German

Created partnerships to reduce homelessness with more than 850 state and local leaders, which have contributed to a 30 percent reduction in long-term homelessness.

More than 600,000 Americans were homeless at some point last year. Michael German of the Department of Housing and Urban Development has used his remarkable people skills to enlist hundreds of local officials in a nationwide effort to try to reduce that number to zero.

Homelessness is clearly a nationwide problem, but it requires localized solutions.

The Interagency Council on Homelessness is charged with coordinating the federal response to homelessness, including ending chronic or long-term homelessness and creating partnerships with every level of government and the private sector. As the Council’s National Team Leader, German serves as the chief evangelist for the Council’s nationwide push to rethink the way we combat the seemingly intractable problem of homelessness.

Fueled by German’s energy, the Interagency Council has signed up more than 850 partners. More than 43,000 units of affordable housing have been created or are in development. The expansion of this program coincided with a 12 percent drop in the number of homeless Americans from 2005 to 2007 and a 30 percent reduction in the number of chronically homeless individuals.

“We’re trying to change the mindset of people. We’ve used moral, spiritual and humanitarian reasons to treat homelessness for 20 years and it’s gotten us nothing,” said German.

The big change that German and his colleagues have promoted is a move away from investing in homeless shelters as the primary answer to the homelessness problem.

“The key is not building more shelters, but more housing, even just small apartments or rooms, and hooking people up with available state and federal services such as Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps, veterans benefits or VA health care” said German. “Building and maintaining a shelter is actually more expensive than building or buying places for homeless people to live.”

Executing German’s approach requires buy-in from local officials, businesses, hospitals and nonprofits, among others. To earn their support, he appealed less to their hearts and more to their heads.

“When I visit a new city, instead of taking potential partners to dinner, I take them to the local emergency room,” said German. “I ask the nurses, ‘Do you treat homeless individuals? How many daily?’ I multiply these daily numbers to get yearly numbers and the mayors and business leaders see the costs right away.”

The response to German and the Council’s outreach has been remarkable, as elected officials have committed unprecedented political will and invested unprecedented resources to end homelessness.

In Miami, German worked with local officials to implement a 10-year plan to reduce homelessness and increase funding for this strategy, and the city has reduced homelessness by 66 percent.

“Michael has been incredible. He’s always there, staying in touch, offering advice” said Manuel Diaz, Mayor of Miami and President of U.S. Conference of Mayors. “Working with Michael and his team has been one of the shining moments of my eight years in office.

German’s boss, Phillip Mangano, believes the response has been positive not only because of the message, but the messenger. 

“Michael has never met a stranger. His ability to connect with others on a personal level and earn their trust is an invaluable commodity in his position,” said Mangano, who is Executive Director of the Interagency Council. “Michael does a great service to the nation, to states, to cities, and to the private sector. His work touches people from the highest levels of government down to the poorest streets in this nation.”

“Homelessness is obviously a complicated issue and one of the most difficult to solve, but Michael’s can-do spirit makes you believe we can overcome any obstacle,” said Mayor Diaz.

Today, more than 850 Mayors and County Executives are partnered in more than 350 jurisdictional 10-Year Plans to End Homelessness, which are framed around business principles, informed by innovation and focused on the single measurement of homelessness that matters – the number of people without a place to live. By this measurement, this effort is working. From 2005 to 2007, the number of homeless Americans was down, reversing a trend, which had been moving in the wrong direction for decades.

“The homeless don’t want a pill or a program. They just want a place to stay,” said German.