Members of Foundations for Youth Success (FYS) gathered in Minneapolis April 7th and 8th to learn about the inspiring work happening in the state to end youth homelessness. Angela D'Orazio of Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland came away from the convening inspired and armed with key takeaways to apply to her foundation's work to prevent and end youth homelessness.
Foundations for Youth Success (FYS) brings together philanthropic leaders -- large, national funders as well as those working at the community level -- in a Community of Practice that is focused on funders' roles in identifying best practices and implementing effective solutions for our young people. Throughout this two year initiative, members participate in regular virtual meetings and come together in person twice per year.
Youth and young adults experiencing homelessness and housing instability represent a unique and special population that requires a unique and special response. Young people ages 15 to 24 straddle the two very different and often uncoordinated worlds of child-serving systems of care and adult-serving systems of care. At the recent Foundations for Youth Success (FYS) convening in Minneapolis, funders from across the country learned how Heading Home Minnesota is making progress toward breaking down silos between state public systems for the benefit of youth experiencing homelessness.
Heading Home Minnesota shares the goal of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness to prevent homelessness whenever possible, and when it’s not, ensure it is rare, brief and non-recurring. That’s a big job but one that we, as funders working in this space, know is attainable through effective collaboration and coordination. This responsibility does not rest on the shoulders of any one system, but rather requires intentional focus and effort from all public systems. Everyone has a stake and a role in preventing and ending homelessness, and Heading Home has effectively built the collective will among all 11 Minnesota state agencies – from the department of education to transportation to health – to take ownership of the community-wide problem of homelessness.
Intrigued and encouraged by Minnesota’s collaborative response, I came to the site visit wondering how to effectively engage those systems that don’t typically or easily see their role in addressing homelessness. Beyond engagement, how can they be held accountable toward the community-wide goal of preventing and ending homelessness? And what is the specific role of funders in this system work?
I left Minnesota with answers and practical guidance to apply to the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland’s work to prevent and end youth homelessness in Cuyahoga County, namely:
- It is essential to build relationships and trust with system leadership to help them understand their agency’s unique role in ending homelessness and how housing stability can contribute to and facilitate their success in attaining specific agency goals. This will allow them to take ownership and commit staff and resources to ensuring housing stability for all. We talk all the time about “systems change,” but systems are made up of people, and it is important to invest the time and energy to develop relationships with those people who wield influence over the system and to educate them on their roles and responsibilities in promoting housing stability.
- Use and share data to better understand the prevalence and characteristics of homeless youth and their multi-system involvement. The lack of visibility around the issue of youth homelessness fosters a fragmented response across systems. What catalyzed greater coordination at a systems level in Minnesota was the recognition that various public systems often serve the same high-need youth, yet these systems operate in silos. They moved from a culture of serving “my clients” to one of collaboratively serving “our clients” in a more coordinated manner. This was made possible through intentional and ongoing data sharing between public agencies.
- Private funders play a critical role in catalyzing ownership and greater coordination among public systems. There are 19 funders engaged in the Heading Home Minnesota Funders’ Collaborative who have collectively said “we are committed to preventing and ending homelessness in partnership with the state.” This provides a resource to leverage public investment and also brings private resources to the table to fund activities that the government can’t. These private funders can also take calculated risks in the name of innovation to pilot new and perhaps better interventions in serving homeless and unstably housed youth.
- Youth engagement isn’t just a nice, feel-good activity but a vital and central part of the process. Especially in systems work, the unique perspective of the client with lived experience can often expose system inefficiencies, gaps and breakdowns, and opportunities for system improvements. It is critical to engage young people who have experienced homelessness to understand their experiences in navigating often complex and bureaucratic public systems.
- Greater coordination at a system level trickles down to and facilitates greater coordination among nonprofit organizations and services. Often public funding streams reinforce and encourage nonprofits to compete and deliver services in a non-coordinated way. Collaboration among state public systems supports greater collaboration among local nonprofits on the ground and on the front lines of serving homeless and unstably housed youth. We saw a great example of this in Minneapolis when we visited YouthLink, a drop in center that also houses the Youth Opportunity Center, where 30 different organizations co-locate services for youth. They meet a comprehensive range of needs from mental and physical health, substance addiction, education and employment, housing, etc. Their model is youth-centered, trauma-informed, and supportive of their mission to “move youth from a fragmented world to a sense of community.”
I left Minneapolis inspired by a model of collaborative leadership to prevent and end homelessness across the state of Minnesota. I also left inspired because we, as funders, have a role in building this collaborative leadership and collective will. All of the funders in Foundations for Youth Success are engaged in similar efforts in their local communities, as are we at the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland. The value of this community of practice has been learning from each other – both our successes and failures – and applying lessons learned to strengthen and enhance our own work.
Angela M. D’Orazio, MSSA is the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland’s program officer for ending homelessness. Over the last four years, Angela has represented the foundation’s work to prevent and end youth homelessness through grants, technical assistance, convening and collaboration support.
Throughout this time, the Sisters of Charity Foundation has been a key leader in building and sustaining a cross-sector initiative called A Place 4 Me. It brings together diverse community partners to collectively prevent and end youth homelessness, especially among youth who have aged out of the foster care system.