Gabe is a veteran who for eight years lived on the streets before moving into the Tempe Permanent Supportive Housing Pilot program. You can read more about his story here.
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.
Valley of the Sun United Way is long-standing member of Funders Together to End Homelessness. Amy Schwabenlender, Vice President of Community Impact, leads the organization's Community Objective to End Hunger and Homelessness in Maricopa County and serves on a variety of community boards, including the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) Continuum of Care Regional Committee on Homelessness. She discusses the impact of their regional work to end and prevent homelessness.
Q: Why did Valley of the Sun United Way first start working on homelessness?
Amy Schwabenlender (AS): Our United Way has been in Maricopa County since 1925. In that 80+ year period, we’ve always invested in emergency shelters and other programs serving families experiencing homelessness. We’ve also been a long-standing member of our Continuum of Care (CoC), which is also focused on Maricopa County.
Q: In just 5 years, Maricopa County has gone from a community that said it was impossible to end chronic homelessness in an economic downtown to one that is making significant progress in doing just that. And Phoenix has become the first city to end chronic homelessness among veterans! How did you get started? What role has Valley of the Sun United Way played?
AS: A few events happened around the same time that really made us think about homelessness differently. First, I attended United Way of America’s annual conference in Denver, and heard about Mile High United Way’s push to end homelessness. I thought it would be great for our community to have a similar goal. Second, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness launched its plan to end homelessness and encouraged communities to develop their own plans. Because of our role on the CoC, we were able to have those conversations with the people and organizations who could take on long-term solutions. Finally, our donors wanted to know the greater impact and value of their donations, which were about $3 million at the time, mostly to shelters and transitional housing. We were managing homelessness.
We started to look at our community impact and not just dollars raised or distributed. After researching best practices and talking to other communities, we prioritized ending and preventing chronic homelessness. We knew that we had to address the needs of the most vulnerable if we wanted to have an impact and we partnered with the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) who brought their expertise in housing to our work. We set a goal of 1,000 units of permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless after surveying providers and looking at data.
In 2009, we presented the idea to government officials, other funders, providers, etc. and then our CoC adopted the goal of ending chronic homelessness in its regional plan. We started with a pilot project in Tempe. Now, we have 790 units either online or in development with 25% of those units dedicated to veterans. The CoC, Arizona Department of Housing, Maricopa County Human Services and the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services have been critical partners all along. Together we are working to end homelessness in Maricopa County.
Q: Valley of the Sun United Way also emphasizes the importance of a systems approach to ending and preventing homelessness. Why do you take that approach? Can you give us a couple of examples of how you approach grantmaking with systems change in mind?
AS: When we launched the Tempe pilot project in 2009, we established an ending homelessness advisory council. It was important that this council bring in a diverse group of stakeholders to guide our work. A large part of our success was in actively looking for best practices and what’s working in other communities. Our advisory council made vital connections with other communities and helped open doors to best practices in the Valley.
Systems change from the funder’s perspective isn’t always about granting money. We found that we first had to develop a shared vision for our community and decide that we were going to work together to get there. We had to discuss the barriers to getting to our goal and agree that we could overcome them. We educated a number of our elected officials and public funders about the benefits of a systems approach to their own work. And of course, we built the capacity of providers who didn’t necessarily have a background in permanent supportive housing. This included organizations who said they didn’t serve the “homeless” population but were working in related areas like affordable housing. No one entity can do everything to end and prevent homelessness. Most of our projects have been able to come online because we have the support of our community.
Q: Your Project Connect is a great example of the systems approach in action. Can you tell us more about it?
AS: Homelessness here is a regional issue – it’s not just about Phoenix or Tempe or Buckeye. People experiencing homelessness might not even know whether they are within the city limits. The power of our United Way is that we are a regional organization and we can bring everyone together to have these conversations. Tempe started a quarterly Project Homeless Connect in 2007. I volunteered with their group and I thought the model would be great to replicate in other places.
To leverage this practice, we created Project Connect, which meets monthly and intentionally rotates around the valley. We find that the project is a great way to engage elected officials, businesses, community leaders, volunteers and people experiencing homelessness. It’s an opportunity to engage and educate new elected officials and volunteers. Every month we focus on solutions: how can we connect individuals to services faster?
One lesson learned for us was actually the name of our project. We initially called it Project Homeless Connect after the Tempe. But we realized that 1) people don’t always identify as homeless, 2) we didn’t want to distance organizations who didn’t see themselves as addressing the homelessness issue even though they were routinely encountering this population, and perhaps most importantly 3) we wanted to help as many people as we could before they became homeless.
In six years, we’ve served more than 17,000 people through this project. We are still working on the evaluation, but we know that making connections among providers, advocates, and funders and empowering a diverse group of champions is helping to end homelessness in our area.
Q: Funders do play a critical role in systems change. What is your relationship with other funders in your community? Can you speak to the ways in which these relationships are important for your work?
AS: We intentionally brought other funders onto our homelessness advisory council. We didn’t ask them for money, but we wanted to begin the conversation. We wanted to learn what they were doing. Some say they don’t invest in homelessness, but they are looking at senior housing or affordable housing. For us, it was about making the connections between their work and ours. There’s also a great interest among public, private, and corporate funders here to align resources and we’re still on that path. Alignment of funding is so critical because we are all working toward the same goal. We’re building momentum and beginning to understand what’s working, and so I think that this momentum will be contagious.
Q: You are a member of Funders Together. How have you benefitted from membership?
AS: Being part of Funders Together has allowed us to make connections with funders working in other communities across the country. We can learn what they are doing and try to adapt best practices, innovative models, and lessons learned to Maricopa County. For example, the Los Angeles Homeless Funders Group (Funders Together Los Angeles) is led by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, so we’ve been able to learn from their plan and approaches. It was great to talk to another United Way who was out in front on homelessness. One of the challenges of this issue is that solutions will somewhat depend on the circumstances and people in your community. You have to adapt what’s working in other communities to address your needs. You can’t follow a recipe for success in this space, and as a funder you have to recognize that your community’s dynamics might be different.
Q: What advice would you offer to other United Ways who are just starting to focus on homelessness or looking to make a bigger impact?
AS: Regardless of where you are in the country, a United Way can get people to come together. There is tremendous power in that. Consider organizing a Project Connect to start talking about who experiences homeless, what caused them to experience homeless, and what solutions can solve this. United Ways also often have great relationships with the business community, and this is a critical group to ending and preventing homelessness. You can bring the business community to the table and educate them on the issue, share what you are doing and see how they can help.
Interested in past featured member profiles? Check out our archive here.