Regardless of the topic, whenever I leave the flurry of work and family life for three days to attend a funder network meeting, I can’t help but find myself wondering “Will it be worth it?” It was much easier to embrace this risk after learning that the 2019 Funders Forum would be held in San Diego at a time of year when my home town, Omaha, Nebraska, has endured a particularly brutal winter including more than 50 inches of snow and -20-degree temperatures.
While I’ve been at The Sherwood Foundation for more than 12 years, I’m a bit of a newbie when it comes to the world of homeless services, so I especially appreciated the opening presentation by Nan Roman from the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Her overview of statistics in state-of-the state type format served as a clear and meaningful invitation to the work. Hearing that 50 percent of unsheltered homeless individuals are “tri-morbid” – likely to suffer from mental ill health, physical ill health and substance misuse, and at the same time less likely to access the health services they need – was a call for more innovation in how we provide services.
As we transitioned to the next session, many questions lingered in the air — What can we do better? How can we change? What are we committing to doing differently as a result of our learning?
The day’s agenda included member conversations via “speed networking” that was well-managed and alleviated the pressure of small talk many of us introverts dread. Through this experience, I learned that Omaha isn’t that far behind San Diego when it comes to implementing solutions around housing and homelessness. It seems most cities need more Rapid Rehousing, additional Permanent Supportive Housing, and a coordinated intake system that doesn’t leave people languishing on waiting lists.
In my experience, this type of shared learning and interaction coupled with the vulnerability of acknowledging “we have tried ‘x’ and it isn’t working” can lead to inventive cross-pollination of ideas and, more simply, serves as much needed inspiration to keep pushing for solutions. All of this to say, we cannot continue to identify and create new programs without including lived experience of those who know what it means to experience homelessness and be unsheltered.
Dr. Tiffany Manuel from TheCaseMade gave an insightful keynote address with a clear message – we must find ways to leverage the short-term political gains to create traction so the long-term strategy of ending homelessness becomes a reality. This is especially true when it comes to working with elected officials who need to show immediate progress on the issues or risk losing the next election. Dr. Manuel’s eye-opening presentation challenged us to rethink our messaging so we are no longer just singing to the choir or even undermining our own intentions. We must “call-to-action” a much broader audience by building the value proposition within the context of what speaks to the community culture.
Local business leader and advocate, Michael McConnell opened the plenary panel providing even greater context about challenges faced by San Diego and he highlighted the missed opportunities to leverage crisis for meaningful system change. Matthew Doherty, US Interagency Council on Homelessness; Ann Oliva, Center for Supportive Housing; and Mo George, Picture the Homeless presented a thoughtful panel—encouraging philanthropy to help create a sense of urgency, take greater risks, and use innovation to address the systemic issues.
All in all, I came back with a renewed commitment to pushing for solid solutions while remaining focused on needed system change that is ultimately informed by lived experience. I was able to spend time reflecting upon the potential for building the public-private partnerships already happening in Omaha with a meaningful message that helps create a sense of urgency. Important connections were made, creating an opportunity to engage with folks outside of my community to exchange ideas, brainstorm challenges, and celebrate insights. What was gained was well worth price of travel — time and treasure — and was exactly what I needed to come back to the freezing cold and even more snow and get back to work.
Kristin Williams is the Director of Community Initiatives at the Sherwood Foundation. She is responsible for managing a diverse portfolio focused primarily on child welfare, holistic neighborhood revitalization, housing and homelessness, family economic well-being, civics, and the arts – all with a lens of racial and social justice. To date, her foundational influence helped spearhead several initiatives including 75 North Revitalization Corp, Collective for Youth, OpenSky Policy Institute, Project Everlast, Connections at Project Harmony. She also led the creation of the African American Unity Fund, Futuro Latino Fund, and LGBTQ+ Equality Fund housed at the Omaha Community Foundation.