10/11/2012 01:19 pm ET Updated Dec 11, 2012

Helping Formerly Homeless Men Achieve

If you are following the presidential election campaign, you would have no idea that America's cities are in trouble.

President Obama and Mitt Romney have astonishingly little to say about our pressing urban ills. The homeless, whose numbers have been growing recently? Children abandoned or abused by their parents? Prisons overflowing with inmates? Veterans who risked their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan unable to find jobs when they come home?

The candidates have almost nothing to say about any of these. How can that be? Every four years, we hold a presidential election that should be a national referendum on the things that matter, the issues that will define our lives.

This time, though, we are getting a vague, circumscribed debate on how to revive the economy and a lot of posturing about which candidate better understands the needs of average Americans.

Their disinclination to talk about our cities is partly political, of course. Neither side thinks the cities are in play. But there is a more fundamental reason: the candidates don't have substantial solutions to offer. They don't talk about the homeless or single-parent families or high school dropouts or jobless veterans because they lack bold new ideas on what to do.

It's not realistic to talk about trimming the federal deficit without confronting the enormous costs of running the prisons and the high price we pay when more than 40 percent of ex-offenders return to prison within three years of their release. It's not reasonable to discuss how to reduce the cost of healthcare without understanding why people living in poverty become seriously ill.

I think there are clear solutions to the desperation in our cities. Our nonprofit organization, the Doe Fund, has been working for more than 20 years with homeless men to transform their lives. We know how to provide paid transitional work and supportive services that enable people with troublesome pasts to find full-time, private-sector jobs.

In New York City, 700 homeless men live in our three residential centers, staying with us generally for eight months to a year. Another 70 men live in our center just south of Center City in Philadelphia. Each resident is paid to work in one of our half-dozen social enterprises, where they learn valuable skills. These businesses raise revenue for our nonprofit and also provide useful services to the public; our clients clean streets and sidewalks, learn the intricacies of pest control, cook in our culinary business, and recycle cooking oil from restaurants, among other things. We are planning new ventures in urban farming and fish farming.

Working under close supervision, our clients learn discipline and how to get along with supervisors. They are tested continually for drugs. They go to classes on everything from how to use a personal computer to how to interview for a job. Many of them interact with positive male role models for the first time in their lives -- and many of these role models on our large, first-rate staff are themselves graduates of our program.

The goal is to guide men who have lost virtually everything -- nearly all of whom have wrestled with substance abuse and many of whom are former offenders -- toward a real job and independent living.

There are no 28-day wonders. It requires months of hard work, training and the acceptance of personal responsibility for formerly homeless men to become productive, tax-paying citizens and true fathers to their children. People with real opportunities do not live on the street, commit crimes or return to prison.

Many other outstanding, dedicated organizations are successfully addressing similar problems in the cities. They help keep nuclear families together. They provide transitional and permanent housing to homeless families. They enable men and women to overcome addictions to drugs and alcohol. They assist former offenders in remaining out of jail. They counsel veterans enduring post-traumatic stress and other crippling psychological disorders.

If the candidates were not so busy making campaign stops in the suburbs of Florida, Ohio and Virginia -- the swing regions of swing states -- they might pay attention to the desperation in our cities. And they might also learn how countless nonprofit organizations like ours are addressing these ills and helping people to overcome them.

We need more support to expand these kinds of services if we seriously want to improve the lives of millions of urban Americans. And we need bold new initiatives. It's both the right thing to do and a smart thing, because it would save the government -- and taxpayers -- vast amounts of money over time.

It is hard to imagine a more appropriate time for a full-scale discussion about the future of our cities than during a presidential election. We should not let this opportunity pass us by.