Reflections on our 2014 Funders Institute
This year, along with dozens of other funders and colleagues from around the nation, I attended the second annual Funders Institute sponsored by Funders Together, in concert with the conference of the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH). At both the Institute and the NAEH conference, I was struck by renewed levels of energy and optimism as we make significant progress in the work of ending homelessness.
According to the best available national data as reported by NAEH, from 2012 to 2013, overall homelessness across the US decreased by 3.7 percent. Furthermore, decreases are being documented across a number of groups for which homelessness is measured. Family homelessness is down 7%, chronic homelessness among individuals is down 7.3%, and veteran homelessness is down by the same amount.
Right here in my own state, HUD reports that family homelessness – the focus of the Gates Foundation’s work – decreased by almost 23% in 2013, the 4th largest decrease for any state in the nation, and by more than 29% since 2007, before the Great Recession. Those are extraordinary numbers.
Admittedly, we still have a long way to go; 31 states saw drops in homelessness in the last year, while 20 states saw increases in overall homelessness. As the experts dive into this data, what is increasingly clear is that we now know the best ways to reduce and ultimately end the crisis of homelessness for individuals, youth, families and veterans.
The evidence points towards the best responses: Permanent supportive housing and rapid re-housing within a “housing first” framework, service-enriched transitional housing for homeless youth, formal programmatic linkages to mainstream systems to help build skills, job-readiness, social capital and individual and family resilience, just to name a few. The rich conversation during both the Funders Institute and the NAEH conference provided example after example from across the nation of communities that are implementing these and other promising and evidence-based practices that are ending homelessness for tens of thousands of Americans.
It is gratifying to hear from colleagues from around the United States that philanthropy is playing a central role in promoting and implementing the responses that we know can end homelessness. Whether hearing from Michael McConnell about new pooled funding resources in San Diego, or from Leslie Strnisha on how small foundations can have disproportional impact on local strategic partnerships, or from Martha Toll about philanthropy’s advocacy power as “The Little Engine that Could,” it was exciting to know that our peers in philanthropy across the nation are on the front lines of the evolutionary changes that are ending homelessness for individuals, families, youth, and veterans.
These partnerships are not going unnoticed by our allies in government. Cecilia Munoz, Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, together with Laura Zeilinger of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, both spoke to us of the extraordinary impact Funders Together is having on the national conversation on homelessness, and the renewed confidence that ending homelessness is within our collective grasp.
And, in a new (and remarkable) demonstration of the impact we are having, it was my honor to be asked by Nan Roman, CEO of NAEH to join her in my capacity as the FTEH board chair in a private welcome to the NAEH conference’s final keynote speaker: Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States. When the First Lady knows what FTEH is, and in her articulate and elegant way thanks FTEH for the work we are doing, it’s hard to deny that our efforts are making an impact on the field.
Rather than wringing our hands about a problem that for years spiraled out of control, the theme that pervaded both the Institute and the NAEH conference is the knowledge that we can – and we are – making significant progress in addressing a problem that many have believed for decades was an unsolvable, intractable, permanent part of the American landscape.
Even as the Institute attendees acknowledged enormous remaining obstacles that include decreasing supplies of affordable housing and not enough jobs that pay a family wage, the gains of the past several years have spawned an optimism that was hard to miss. The skeptics are losing ground as we demonstrate that we can achieve that day when homelessness, if it does occur, will be something rare, brief in duration, and a one-time-only experience.
David Wertheimer is the Deputy Director of the Pacific Northwest Initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, as well as the Board Chair of Funders Together to End Homelessness. Find him at @DavidWSeattle.
Want to see more photos from our 2014 Funders Institute? Click here for a recap of the event.