WHEN approached by the homeless for a handout, Mitchell Ginsberg often takes time to explain exactly where individuals can apply for help and how to do it. "But they're generally more interested in my giving them money than advice," he says with a smile. Yet that small act of patience in a fast-moving world is symbolic of a lifelong Ginsberg pattern of compassion for - and advocacy on behalf of - the nation's poor. Recently, former students and friends at Columbia University - where the tall, bearded Professor Ginsberg is dean emeritus of the School of Social Work and still teaches one course - paid tribute to his work by pooling more than $1 million to establish a professorship in his name.
A reluctant recruit (he preferred to go on teaching) of former New York Mayor John Lindsay in the 1960s, Ginsberg served for many years as chief of the city's mammoth welfare system, where he instituted a number of far-reaching reforms. He has testified before both Democratic and Republican platform committees and is a past president of the National Association of Social Workers.
Today he chairs the Emergency Alliance for Homeless Families and Children, an umbrella group of more than 100 service organizations providing shelter as well as educational, legal, and other help to New York City's homeless. Professor Ginsberg helped to found the Alliance six years ago on the theory that member groups could make an effective difference in local policies and legislative decisions if they spoke with one voice.
Alliance Coordinator Rose Anello says Ginsberg's knowledge, experience, and tact are invaluable. The fact that he has worked inside the city bureaucracy during troubled times, she says, and the steady respect he holds for homeless families and their needs, gives the Alliance a "clout" it would not otherwise have.
"He really guides every move we make," says Ms. Anello.
In Ginsberg's view, the fact that urban homelessness is so much more visible and pervasive today than it was a few decades ago is proof that more effective answers are needed.
Current estimates of the number of homeless nationwide range from 300,000 to 3 million. Causes of homelessness vary from alcoholism and mental illness to job loss and disputes among the thousands of families who are not technically homeless but live in doubled-up quarters.
Solutions must be made to fit the problems, insists Ginsberg. Many agencies now provide a combination of services, a trend he strongly favors.
In most cases, he says, housing is key. Public housing in which tenant groups screen newcomers carefully to keep drugs and crime at a minimum is simply not available, says Ginsberg. "If I were eligible, I'd have to wait 10 or 12 years before they got to me."
Though he initially favored deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill - estimated to account for up to a third of today's homeless - Ginsberg says he now thinks some of those released need to return to institutional care. The money saved in hospitals was never transferred to community services for the mentally ill, in part because the unions fought it, he says. Many neighborhoods refused to accept small-care centers, an area where he thinks government needs to take a firmer hand.
"I think we know more now what to do about homelessness," he says. "It's a question of whether we're going to be able to get the resources. I think the problem is extremely difficult, but I don't think it's hopeless."
Ginsberg says that for many people homelessness is temporary, but that some will require help for the rest of their lives. In his view, the scope of the problem reaches well beyond the capacity and duty of cities and states.
"I believe the federal government has a major role to play," he says. "I've noticed that the way people feel about federal programs depends on who benefits. Farmers never complain about subsidies. Manufacturers never complain about tariffs.... The homeless are politically powerless - they can't speak up for themselves."
He sees some promising signs. These include Congress's $57 billion housing bill last fall, which includes money for emergency shelters and 200,000 units of assisted housing. Also, he singles out the welfare reform bill now taking effect. "I'm not enthusiastic about it, but I think it's probably as much as we could have gotten through Congress," he says. He is pleased by the expansion of Head Start, which he helped to launch, but wants to see it fully funded to help all eligible children. He favors many of the programs launched during the 1960's "War on Poverty" but says that the late President Johnson "completely oversold them."
In any case, Ginsberg notes that when Congress really sees a need - whether it is to pay for the Gulf War or the savings and loan crisis - lawmakers somehow find the money. He remains hopeful, if not optimistic.
A Lincoln and Civil War buff who majored in history and grew up wanting to become a baseball commissioner, Ginsberg got sidetracked into social work when he took a job coaching basketball at a Boston settlement house while he was a senior at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Someone there urged him to apply for a fellowship at the New York School of Social Work. The rest is history.