TAMPA — The people who know homelessness — those who walk the pavement and talk to the folks who sleep on the streets — will tell you that no one chooses this lifestyle.
And if you scour America's biggest cities, as people like Philip Mangano have done, and ask the nation's homeless what they need, the answers are always simple and always the same.
"They never say they want a pill, a product or a program," said Mangano, who lives in Boston. "They always say 'a place.' A place to live. And after that is a job."
That is exactly what people like Mangano want to give them. But they also want the assurance that once the homeless are off the streets, they won't go back.
Mangano is chief executive officer of the American Round Table to Abolish Homelessness and a former appointee in the Bush and Obama administrations. Speaking Tuesday morning before a gathering of about 30 of Tampa's political and business leaders, he touted a concept that he says could dramatically affect homelessness. He was joined by Tod Lipka, CEO of Step Up on Second, an organization based in Santa Monica, Calif., that advocates for the mentally ill, who said the concept known as "housing first" shows success where other homeless outreach efforts have fallen short.
"I think all of us recognize it is a pervasive problem," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who was among those in attendance. "Efforts so far have not been delivering the services needed in a comprehensive manner."
The difference with housing first is that it is comprehensive, the mayor said.
The idea is fairly simple: provide those most vulnerable to homelessness with apartments and reinforce that with focused social services to help them stabilize their lives. By targeting the chronically homeless — someone with a disabling condition who has been homeless for more than a year or who has had more than four episodes of homelessness in the past three years — advocates hope to abolish the problem.
It seems a tall task. But advocates point to the success of housing first initiatives in cities like San Antonio, Texas, where Tampa business executive Cal Reed learned of the concept. He brought the idea to Tampa and helped assemble Steps Forward, a group led by private sector executives who want to reduce Hillsborough's population of nearly 700 chronically homeless people. The goal is to create 500 new housing units within five years.
It would require a significant investment and the acquisition of existing properties. But some of the work is already done. In 2012, the group launched Cypress Landing, which provided housing to 24 people. Steps Forward recently purchased a second facility, which will house 20 homeless veterans.
The effort is funded through public and private partnerships.
"We need the private sector to weigh in and in a big way," Buckhorn said. "The days of government being the solution for everything are over."
Among those chipping in to get the program running in Hillsborough is Tod Leiweke, CEO of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Advocates like Mangano and Lipka say the approach works in a way that other homeless programs do not, resulting in 85 to 90 percent of those who receive housing remaining off the street. Lipka told the story of a Los Angeles man who ended 30 years of homelessness after housing first initiatives were used there.
"It breaks the idea that people don't want housing," Lipka said. "It completely works."