May 2013 Features

Fighting Homelessness with Philosophy

Jennifer L. Ho ’87 draws on her philosophy major as HUD’s new senior advisor for housing and services.

By Lini S. Kadaba

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Jennifer L. Ho ’87

Jennifer L. Ho ’87 spends her days tackling the enormous twin public policy issues of homelessness and affordable healthcare from the nation’s capital. With her new appointment to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, she persuades skeptics that seemingly “highfalutin’” theories will translate to real-world, community-level impacts—all while staying within budget.

Ho, HUD’s senior advisor for housing and services, traces her reasoning skills to what she learned more than a quarter century ago at Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in philosophy.

“I haven’t pulled Heidegger off the shelf for a long time,” she says of a favorite philosopher and the subject of her senior thesis.

But Ho, 47, admits that she regularly draws on various schools of philosophy to advance healthcare and homelessness policies. Philosophy offers a lens through which she can “see a better world,” she says, “and see how systems need to realign in order to create that better world.”

Philosophy, after all, is all about “the ability to think,” Ho says, “as opposed to just knowing how to do something—the ability to hold competing ideas in your mind at the same time and to be able to be thoughtful that not everybody sees the world in the same way.”

None of this was her original plan. Ho entered Bryn Mawr as a math major, and the political appointee wisely notes, “I still like to have numbers that add up.” But she was smitten by an Introduction to Philosophy course. “I fell in love with the ability to make arguments,” she says.

“It felt like we were talking about big questions—questions of freedom and self-determination and knowledge,” she says of her experience as a philosophy major. “At that stage in my life, these were really big, important questions.”

Ho also learned the art of a well-structured, well-made argument, essential to that Washington staple—a good memo. “I’ve written many a memo,” she says.

Robert J. Dostal, the Rufus Jones Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Bryn Mawr, recalls Ho as “vocal and feisty.” He had her in three classes, including Plato: The Early Dialogues (another favorite of Ho’s) and the notoriously difficult Hegel: The Phenomenology of Spirit.

“Jennifer was an excellent student,” Dostal says. In the Hegel final exam, Dostal required students to identify and analyze 10 particular passages located within the lengthy text. No one got more than seven correct, except Ho, who identified all 10 “and provided brilliant commentary on them,” he says. “She was a junior, and it was graduate-level work.”

After graduating, Ho intended to pursue a doctorate at the University of Toronto and an academic career but quickly realized she preferred to get her “hands a little more dirty” in the work world. She returned to her native Minnesota and plunged into managed healthcare. After stops at Blue Cross Blue Shield Plus of Minnesota, where she first began learning about the overlap of homelessness and high healthcare costs, and UnitedHealth Group’s AARP division, she became the first executive director of Hearth Connection. The nonprofit oversaw a nationally recognized demonstration project to end long-term homelessness.

In 2010, Ho was appointed deputy director at the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness in Washington, D.C. There, she coordinated policies across Health and Human Services, Education, and other federal agencies. Ho shepherded Opening Doors, a first-ever federal roadmap to end homelessness among veterans and the long-term homeless by 2015, and among families and youth by 2020.

She moved to HUD this year and will focus on using the Affordable Care Act, as well as permanent housing options, as tools to end homelessness.

“We can set ambitious goals because these are problems we know how to solve,” she says, noting a 7-percent drop in homelessness among veterans and the chronically homeless since 2011 based on data from 3,000 cities and counties. “Part of my job is to keep an eye on the big goal and constantly reassess strategies to get from here to there.”

To that end, the philosopher in her is never far away. “This work takes a combination of passion and discipline,” Ho says. “I think studying philosophy gave me that combination.”

 

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