Credit: Melville Charitable Trust
At Funders Together, we make it a goal to share the work of funders across the country so you can learn what's working and adapt these strategies to your own community. One way we do that is through our Featured Members. Some are featured because of their innovative grantmaking. Others are featured because they are making connections and bringing new people into the conversation about ending and preventing homelessness. Still others are featured because they are challenging the very systems that allow homelessness to persist. In each case, our Featured Members are an integral part of the solution to homelessness.
In 2013 the Melville Charitable Trust—the largest foundation in the United States exclusively devoted to preventing and ending homelessness—announced a new grantmaking strategy. In this interview, Executive Director Janice Elliott talks about the work that has helped define their renewed approach and the valuable lessons learned that have brought clarity to the role that the Trust and other foundations can play in the quest to end homelessness.
Q: The Trust announced a new grantmaking strategy last fall. Can you give us an overview?
Janice Elliott (JE): For many years, the Trust has invested in work focused on preventing and ending homelessness. Most of our work targeted individuals who were experiencing chronic homelessness and solutions such as supportive housing. Last year we went through a strategic planning process and realized that if we are going to put an end to homelessness, we need to expand how we are working on this issue. We honed in on three areas: housing, health and support, and income. For those who have known the Trust for a long time, our emphasis on those three areas is not new. But going forward, we will be more deliberate about moving our work—and encouraging the work of our grantees—to focus clearly on solutions. In each of those three areas, we are focusing on changes that go beyond individual programs to improve the systems that fund programs and deliver services.
Q: Can you talk about how these three areas correlate and how that plays out in the work you are doing?
JE: One good example is the correlation between housing and health and support. Some of the largest investments we have made are in the realm of supportive housing, which is affordable housing where tenants can get access to support services that help them remain stable in housing. These tenants are individuals and families that need an extra level of assistance—perhaps due to a mental illness, or a history of substance addiction, or both, or other chronic health conditions. Here in Connecticut, and in many other states, healthcare reform has expanded the number of people who are eligible for health insurance under Medicaid. That means there is now health insurance available to individuals who may be experiencing homelessness who did not have that access before. Medicaid is a potential resource to fund the services side of supportive housing—and it may help us to dramatically expand this amazing housing resource. But there are a lot of questions about how that would work in Connecticut. We are funding the Corporation for Supportive Housing to explore this new opportunity from the public sector point of view and to also work with local nonprofit organizations to strengthen their capacity to use Medicaid in this way.
Q: The Trust has defined housing as the building block for solving homelessness. Can you talk about that philosophy?
JE: When an individual or family is homeless, their life is in chaos. Homelessness happens when nothing else has worked. People don’t have resources: they are just trying to figure out how to get a roof over their head for a night, and how they can get food. But once you have housing—once you have a home that is yours—then you can start to think about getting help on other things. For example, if you’re homeless and you try to get a job, you don’t have an address to put on an application; you don’t know where you are going to sleep at night; you don’t even know how you are going to get to work from where you are. There is no stable base to work from. But once a family or an individual gets into housing things stabilize and they are much more open, eager and willing to address other needs they may have. Being homeless is like trying to run a marathon in quicksand: it doesn’t work, which is why we put housing at the center.
Q: Can you tell us about some of the investments the Trust has made in housing?
JE: We invest both in Connecticut and at the national level. On the national policy level, we invest in groups such as the National Low Income Housing Coalition and their efforts to create a national housing trust fund that will provide resources to expand the supply of affordable housing serving extremely low-income households. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is involved in efforts to expand rental assistance to make housing more affordable for people with the lowest incomes. Another major grantee partner is the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which has been successful in getting bipartisan support to create supportive housing and rapid rehousing, which is a fairly new intervention that moves families quickly from shelters into housing and gets them stabilized.
In Connecticut we support the housing policy work of the Partnership for Strong Communities and other partners involved in the Reaching Home campaign, which is a highly collaborative, statewide effort focused on solutions to homelessness. We have also invested in community loan funds to provide start-up support for developers to create more supportive and affordable housing. We also invest in capacity building. The Connecticut Housing Coalition has an Affordable Housing Academy that brings housing authorities and nonprofit development organizations together to plan new housing development projects—so they can expand the supply of affordable housing, then coordinate services in those communities. So we invest in a variety of ways—both supporting groups that are creating housing, and funding work that creates a policy environment that will allow for the expansion of housing.
Q: The Trust has some direct ownership of housing in Hartford, Connecticut. Can you tell us about your work in that community?
JE: In 2003, the Trust renovated an historic building, the Lyceum, which has become a wonderful education and conference center that provides a space where the community and policymakers can gather to exchange ideas on how to create safe, affordable housing and strong communities. As the Lyceum became more successful, the Trust board and staff looked around and thought that we can’t just be an island in a neighborhood that is in dire need of more investment. The Trust purchased several homes around the Lyceum as well as the Billings Forge housing complex across the street, totaling 117 units of mixed-income, primarily affordable, housing. The Trust invested a lot of dollars into improving the housing and stabilizing the buildings. We also founded Billings Forge Community Works—an amazing nonprofit located within the Billings Forge complex. They work with families living at the complex as well as those in the neighborhood on youth development programs, a culinary arts program, and an employment program. Everything is centered on food. So right there at Billings Forge there is a farmers’ market, a community garden, and a social enterprise café called The Kitchen that provides job training for individuals who have had significant barriers to employment. Within the same Billings Forge complex the Trust opened Firebox—an award-winning farm-to-table restaurant. So we invested in housing but we also looked beyond housing at investments that could create more jobs and attract more public and private sector investment to the neighborhood.
Q: Can you give us any insights into what you learned from the investments you made in that community?
JE: Yes. There were good lessons to be learned, and our role has shifted. We realized that foundations are probably not the best entities to own housing, and we realized that we needed a partner who specialized in the operation of mixed-income housing and could also bring in public and private sector dollars to do a large refurbishment of the Billings Forge apartments. So at the end of 2013, we formed a partnership with POAH, Preservation of Affordable Housing—a national nonprofit based out of Boston. The Billings Forge complex is now owned by a partnership of the Trust and POAH, with POAH taking the lead role. We are really excited because we took the risk of buying properties that needed attention. We made a fair number of investments, but the properties probably hadn’t had a substantial rehab in about thirty years—and it was time. We were able to attract a development partner, which would have been hard in those early years. So we brought the housing to a place where we could take it to the next step and say, OK, we have done the part we needed to do; now we can turn over the housing piece to a partner.
Q: I imagine your experience with the Billings Forge project is instructive to other foundations. Is there any other advice you can give to foundations engaged in ending homelessness?
JE: There are foundations that don’t believe they can get involved in policy work because they think it’s lobbying. But there is a difference between having a point of view and lobbying. We are not funding groups to lobby, but we are funding them to talk about the issue, to talk about what works, to talk about the research, and to educate people. It is very important to make people aware—and that is a role foundations can play. Foundations should also know that there is not just one way to make investments that will end homelessness: there are many different ways.
Q: Are there any new areas of investment for the Trust?
JE: Yes. One area is around youth who are experiencing homelessness or are transitioning out of the state child-welfare system—because there is a significant connection between child-welfare involvement and homelessness. This is an area where more research is needed. We need to explore what the solutions are and if they are the same solutions that work for adults.
The other area we want to focus more on is income. When we talk about people who are experiencing homelessness we are oftentimes talking about men and women who don’t have a lot of work experience, or may need additional education so they can enter a competitive job market. So there is skill building, but there is also a need for on-the-job training, placement help and support for job retention. There are groups doing interesting work around the employment piece, and we want to learn more so we can figure out strategically the best place for us to be around that issue. We have a strong bias that if we are going to get involved, we want to look at the issue from the systems perspective—so we are not just funding individual programs but making sure the public sector is engaged and nonprofits are learning new ways to realize their missions.
Q: From your personal perspective, why are you passionate about solving homelessness?
JE: For me, there is a powerful story about living in a world where no one is lost. Homelessness represents for so many people the end of hope, the hope that things are going to get better. I worked at the Corporation for Supportive Housing for many years. We would talk with tenants of supportive housing, and what was most powerful for them was to have a place where they could lay their head at night, a place where they had their own key and they could come home at the end of the day and put that key in the door. They could finally call something theirs. That is the heart and soul of what this work is all about. It’s about dignity; it’s about respect; it’s about hope. So I feel it’s a privilege to work in a field that is about helping people to regain those things—to regain dignity, respect, and mostly to regain hope.
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