Many systems touch at-risk and homeless families: foster care, child welfare, crisis response, mental health services, and schools, to name a few–but no one system will solve family homelessness alone.
I attended a lively funders event on October 11 in Hartford, CT: “How Catalytic Philanthropy is Aligning Resources to End Homelessness,” which was co-sponsored by the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy, Funders Together to End Homelessness, and the Melville Charitable Trust. About 40 funders from across the state were there and ready with plenty of ideas and questions.
David Wertheimer, Funders Together board chair and deputy director of the Pacific Northwest Initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, kicked things off with an informative presentation about Gates’ approach to ending family homelessness in Washington state through “catalytic” funding and systems change.
Many systems touch at-risk and homeless families: foster care, child welfare, crisis response, mental health services, and schools, to name a few–but no one system will solve family homelessness alone. They frequently produce fragmented responses, operating within their own silos. A family may have several case managers that don’t talk to each other. Changing this, according to Wertheimer, requires a new set of partnerships reaching across systems. Funders can play a role by showing how homeless families are a part of all of these systems and that preventing and ending homelessness will have an impact on each system’s performance and outcomes.
Philanthropy’s Role in Systems Change
Wertheimer likened funders to tugboats: we aren’t the biggest boats in the harbor, he said, but we are critical players, pulling back, leaning in, aligning the supertanker that are federal, state, and local governments. Funders have roles as:
- Catalytic Investors–funding investments that have a disproportionate impact
- Collaborative Conveners–getting the right people to the right places
- Knowledge Generators–investing in research
- Innovative Advocates–providing a credible voice to advance systems change, especially impactful when several funders are in sync
Wertheimer gave an example of cross-system partnership in Tacoma, WA, where the local housing authority and school were able to target 50 Section 8 vouchers to homeless families. As a part of the lease, the students needed to stay in school and parents were required to stay involved in their child’s school. While there was initial skepticism about these types of lease restrictions, later these same parents formed the first PTA at their school!
A Comprehensive Approach in Connecticut
Also at the meeting, Janice Elliott, executive director of the Melville Charitable Trust, spoke about Connecticut’s plan to end homelessness, Opening Doors-Connecticut. Modeled after the federal Opening Doors plan, it takes a comprehensive approach that emphasizes the connections between the systems that touch homelessness: housing, healthcare, employment, prevention, education, veterans, criminal justice, behavioral health, and child welfare.
In 2011 in Connecticut, 49% of families sheltered were new to shelter–a 31% increase from 2010. The negative outcomes from housing instability on economic security, education, health, and homelessness are well documented. Opening Doors focuses on connecting theses systems and enabling them to work together effectively.
The Melville Trust has committed to funding groups that are leading the planning and statewide coordination of the plan. These groups are advocating at the state level and building nonprofit capacity, particularly through local 10-Year Plans to end homelessness.
There are a variety of ways for philanthropy to engage with Opening Doors-CT. Funders are invited to join the steering committee and explore the workgroups. Investing in your local 10-Year plans and connecting them to the Opening Doors process are other options.
Panel: “There Are No Discrete Funding Areas”
Elliot then moderated a panel that included:
- Merle Burke-Schlessel, Esq. president and CEO, United Way of Coastal Fairfield County
- Nick Lundgren, director of the Office of Housing and Community Development, Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD)
- Maria Mojica, vice president for programs, Hartford Foundation for Public Giving
- David Wertheimer, deputy director, Pacific Northwest Initiative, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
The panelists agreed with Burke-Schlessel’s statement that “there are no discrete funding areas.” This is certainly true for funding homelessness. Housing stability has a significant impact on so many areas: healthcare, education, and job security. There are many ways for funders to engage in ending homelessness through myriad funding areas.
Mojica noted that, at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, program officers work across funding areas and are able to share information in order to increase the impact of grants. And Lundgren noted that DECD is always looking to align different interests and funding opportunities. He acknowledged that DECD is one of the “supertankers” that the philanthropy tugboats will be targeting!
Burke-Schlessel observed that funders often “swim in our own lanes.” While it may not be practical that we all swim in the same lane, we can work on swimming in the same direction.
Collaborating in Connecticut is difficult because there are more than 160 separate towns and funding regionally is a challenge. Funders might work together to incentivize this type of regional work. It was agreed that philanthropy can use its influence to introduce issues, but there needs to be real action around coalescing. This starts with talking more, seeing what could be done together. There was interest in a follow-up phone call in Connecticut around working together to fund common solutions around homelessness.
Aimee Hendrigan is the Senior Program Officer at the Melville Charitable Trust. Her responsibilities include analysis and review of grant proposals, program and project monitoring, research on regional and national issues, and strategy development. She coordinates activities between and among the range of initiatives the Trust has underway with particular emphasis on neighborhood building. Aimee has a Masters degree in City Planning from the University of California, Berkeley with a focus on community development.
View the presentation materials here.