Just about anyone working to solve the problem of homelessness in our communities recognizes that coordinating public and private efforts is a key ingredient to measurable, sustainable success.
Just about anyone working to solve the problem of homelessness in our communities recognizes that coordinating public and private efforts is a key ingredient to measurable, sustainable success. On February 10, Funders Together and the Los Angeles Homeless Funders Group co-convened a gathering to explore models of public-private partnerships and reflect on lessons learned. Forty representatives from public and private sector entities participated in the meeting.
Nan Roman from the National Alliance to End Homelessness moderated an opening panel focusing on national trends and models. To provide context to the discussion, Dennis Culhane from the University of Pennsylvania reported on data and trends in homelessness. The economic crisis is clearly having an effect on homelessness, as there was a 10% increase in family homelessness from 2007 to 2008, the average length of stay in shelters has increased, and homelessness caused by foreclosures has grown. One particular trend that will become increasingly important is that the homeless population is aging, currently with an average age of 50. As these people age, they will likely deteriorate in health conditions and require increased medical and other care.
Anthony Love from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness provided an overview of the Obama Administration’s priorities, including developing a first-ever federal plan to end homelessness that will be delivered to Congress on May 20. He highlighted prevention and coordination across federal departments such as HUD and HHS as key components of the plan and called on philanthropy to use its convening power, investment in community capacity and support for research to partner with the governmental efforts to end homelessness.
Two Funders Together members, Melville Charitable Trust and Fannie Mae, profiled public-private work they have been engaged in. Bob Hohler from Melville shared his more than two decades of experience working on this issue and in particular their work on creating supportive housing in Connecticut. He argued that philanthropy can play a supporting and catalyzing role – for example supporting research and legal aid services or funding an inter-agency task force as they did in Connecticut – but that ultimately the public sector is best positioned to provide the necessary resources to address homelessness.
Jason Hall from Fannie Mae shared how, even with limited grant dollars, they have been able to generate unprecedented momentum and public-private coordination toward reducing homelessness in Fort Worth, Texas. Fannie Mae and other partners such as the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) brought various partners together and increased public resources going toward addressing homelessness dramatically, leading to the creation of a 10-year plan which has already begun to produce measurable declines in the number of homeless persons.
The second half of the meeting shifted to highlight several examples from Los Angeles, where there is great need (the 2009 count found about 50,000 people homeless every night, two-thirds of whom are unsheltered and one-quarter chronically homeless); but where there has been progress in addressing homelessness in recent years. Jonathan Hunter from CSH traced the history of permanent supportive housing in Los Angeles, where CSH has been conducting concentrated work in recent years as part of an initiative with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and other partners. The pace of PSH development has increased over the past five years, in line with a larger cadre of developers who are better prepared to target the units for the chronically homeless who need them. A consensus has developed among elected and public officials that PSH is the preferred solution to chronic homelessness, and private foundations, banks, and corporations have stepped up to support the work.
Tara Westman from the Weingart Foundation reported on their Skid Row Homeless Healthcare Initiative, which began in 2003 and seeks to increase coordination around health needs of homeless and low-income persons in the central city. Working with other funders, the community clinic association and the public sector, the initiative eventually settled on the need for developing a health center that would integrate services for those living on the streets, in shelters and housing units. This effort culminated in the opening of the Center for Community Health Downtown Los Angeles in July 2009. The Center is a 20,000 sq. ft. clinic that provides a comprehensive set of medical, mental health, substance abuse and case management services, created with public and private sector funds and involvement. It is run by a nonprofit health provider and includes co-located staff and services from the county.
Flora Gil Krisiloff, Deputy to Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, traced the history and results from “Project 50,” an effort begun in 2008 to move the 50 most vulnerable chronically homeless people living on the streets in Skid Row into permanent supportive housing. The idea for the project germinated in a meeting convened by Supervisor Yaroslavsky, Phil Mangano from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and Rosanne Haggerty from Common Ground in New York, where participants agreed to use a Vulnerability Index survey tool developed by Common Ground to identify and house the persons most likely to die on the streets. The County took the lead in funding the two year demonstration project at $3.6 million, and the City of Los Angeles, Common Ground, Skid Row Housing Trust and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority were other key partners. In all, more than 24 departments and agencies participate in the project. To date, 67 people haven been housed with an 85% retention rate and initial analysis has demonstrated a significant savings in public costs.
From these various examples and perspectives from inside and outside Los Angeles, there were several common themes that emerged:
The importance of planning and goal-setting: As experience in Fort Worth, Connecticut, and Los Angeles show, setting numerical targets can help mobilize both public and private resources around permanent solutions. Planning can take many forms, but in the end it should create some level of shared action and accountability.
The power of cross-sector collaboration: Neither public nor private sectors alone have enough resources or capacity to end homelessness. Philanthropy can play an important role in seeding innovation and mobilizing cross-sector collaboration and public will. The public sector is best positioned to coordinate and sustain resources to provide housing and services to eliminate and prevent homelessness. The key is that whether in the case of a specific project such as a health clinic or broader systemic change to align funding around housing tied to services, the result of public and private sector groups working together is much greater than the sum of their parts.
The urgency of acting for permanent solutions: Cost avoidance studies show that there is a high cost to doing nothing about homelessness. Public and private actors each get pressure to provide short-term answers for immediate needs, but long-term, sustainable change can happen only if they work together to provide the right housing and service solutions that will ultimately make homelessness unnecessary.
Bill Pitkin is Senior Program Officer at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and a member of the national Steering Committee for Funders Together to End Homelessness.