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The Power of Mini Planning Grants to Fuel Systems Change in Homelessness

When we first became involved with homelessness, we noticed that the national focus and most of the local work was on ending chronic homelessness.  While we applauded this effort, we wanted to see the 10-year community planning process include homeless families as well. 

The Paul and Phyllis Fireman Charitable Foundation has been working in family homeless for 12 years, through two different state administrations, helping to keep the focus in Massachusetts on building a more collaborative system of interventions to end family homelessness in the state.

When we first became involved with homelessness, we noticed that the national focus and most of the local work was on ending chronic homelessness.  While we applauded this effort, we wanted to see the 10-year community planning process include homeless families as well.  So, in 2000, we offered homelessness planning efforts across the state some additional resources in the form of $10,000 “mini grants” to expand their efforts to include families.  About 80% of the state championed this cause and the grants laid the groundwork for many other efforts.

A few years later, we again used the $10K mini planning grant approach to help move the homeless response system. In that effort, we clearly articulated that stakeholders beyond the traditional shelter providers needed to be at the table as well, engaged in developing a more broad-based response to family homelessness.

Soon after that work was completed, the State Legislature approved a $10-million dollar conversion fund for the Massachusetts Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness to test new policies and practices in the field.  The Administration of Gov. Deval Patrick quickly launched a statewide regional effort that built on our initial work to test new interventions.  That work is still ongoing as the Governor’s office continues to work with the legislature to move the system to a more robust set of housing resources.

Connecting Homelessness to Education & Employment Assistance

Soon, though, that work was challenged by the economic turbulence of the last few years. As the world seeks to recover, state and local governments are figuring out how to do more with less.  Families that were staying in shelters, hoping to get permanent housing subsidies, are finding they must settle for short-term housing interventions for the foreseeable future.  The new mantra is prevention, diversion, and rapid exit from shelter with time-limited housing support.

In order to help the field think more creatively about the current picture, Fireman recently launched another mini RFP (Request for Proposals). While acknowledging that our homeless system can’t end poverty, we believe it can be challenged to help prepare vulnerable families for the next steps once they are housed.  So we launched a $10,000 “Education and Workforce Capacity Planning Grant for Homeless and At-Risk Families” in eight different regional networks.

The grant is based on actual data about the educational attainment of most families in our homeless system.  Again, this is an attempt to break down the silos between systems and “mix up the room” by getting homeless providers talking to employment specialists in very real ways.  Regions were challenged to innovate, leverage, and fast-forward some short-term education, job readiness, and/or employment opportunities for individuals moving out of shelter with short-term housing support.

What Are We Learning?

  1. With a few exceptions, the housing and employment systems are disconnected even when they exist in the same agency.  But now, new conversations are taking place to bring those walls down.  As a result, one job training provider that previously hadn’t received any referrals from homeless providers saw an increase of 50% coming from homeless providers.  Clearly, awareness and joint planning to integrate services and resources pay off.

  2. Many more homeless providers now want to learn about employment services, and employment specialists are working to better understand how they can help.  Plans for regional cross training are in the works.

  3. Public and private funders champion outcomes that often create incentives for programs to target those who are most likely to succeed.  Most employment providers are not opposed to championing more challenged individuals, but the current design of performance-based contracting need s to be changed to make it happen.

  4. Child care and transportation supports—when they do exist―often do not align.  It pays to have these providers in the same room with homeless and employment providers working on the solutions together.

  5. Communities often have underutilized training resources that could be brought to the table in new and exciting collaborations. We have one region working with four vocational schools to explore using the school facilities for job training during the evenings and weekends.  The planning includes bringing in existing transportation and child care providers to support the effort.  Who better to work with vulnerable families than vocational schools? They know the employers and where the jobs are located.

  6. We have established an education and workforce advisory committee at the Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness to generate policy and regulatory changes that could help fast-forward our efforts in this area.

  7. All funders—whether government agencies or public or private philanthropy―can and should structure their funding opportunities to elicit desired outcomes from applicants.  We can see the silos and need to create funding incentives to help break them down.

  8. We hope to engage other foundations to pool funds in support of opportunity pathways for families transitioning out of homelessness.  This collective force could help promote exciting new systems change work.

Sue Beaton is the Director of Special Initiatives at The Paul & Phyllis Fireman Charitable Foundation.

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