A national network of funders supporting strategic, innovative, and effective solutions to homelessness

Chicago’s Potential: Ending Homelessness and Strengthening Nonprofits

Throughout the Polk Bros Foundation's 30th anniversary year, in its Chicago’s Potential blog series, it is sharing trends and progress the Foundation is noticing across focus areas, and pointing to what they see changing in Chicago that gives them hope. This post from Polk Bros. Foundation Senior Program Officer Debbie Reznick, who leads grantmaking in the Foundation’s Strong Communities and Enhanced Capacity program areas, originally appeared on the Foundation's blog in June 2019. In it, Debbie focuses on areas related to ending homelessness, increasing access to justice through legal aid and building the capacity of nonprofit organizations.

What I’m Seeing

In my work across Chicago and across the country, I’m noticing an unprecedented amount of collaboration amongst government agencies, funders, providers, advocates, researchers and people with lived experience to address long-standing social challenges. I’m also seeing a willingness to acknowledge that many social problems have been caused by our country’s long history of deep-seated structural racism and an understanding that we must address systemized inequities to ensure all people have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

One area where I see both of these exemplified – collaboration and an increased focus on racial justice – is within the national movement to end youth homelessness. I continue to learn a lot from the work of A Way Home America, my colleagues at Funders Together to End Homelessness, and the advocates at True Colors United about innovative solutions to youth homelessness and about how to center the voices and experiences of youth of color and LGBTQ youth.

That’s why Polk Bros. Foundation created the Youth Homelessness Innovation Fund with Crown Family Philanthropies – to lift up bold, disruptive, and transformational solutions that promote housing stability for young people. Foundations can help catalyze change when we make investments that support – and lead – people and sectors to work together in new ways, and also when we provide the resources to enable them to take individual and collective risks.

While the work on youth homelessness is a good example of community coordination, there are other areas where we need to ramp up collaborative work. For instance, foundations have typically made sporadic and episodic investments in strengthening nonprofits, particularly on Chicago’s south and west sides. We know strong neighborhood organizations are essential to moving the needle on the city’s most persistent challenges. So we are working with other local foundations to create a significant, sustained capacity-building effort that will prioritize investments in organizations serving and led by people of color, initially on Chicago’s west side.

Through the July 2016 Point the Way survey about local capacity needs, we heard clearly from 300 local nonprofits that consistent and neighborhood-based capacity support has been missing and that it’s one of the critical things they need to thrive. I’m excited that a group of west side leaders will soon launch a multi-pronged program that will provide assessments and customized support, capacity-building grants, and opportunities to build connections between leaders. And we’ll keep working with our funder colleagues to help ensure there is sustained support for the work.

What Matters Most for Chicago

Two things come first to mind.

The first is addressing systemic racism and its impacts. Metropolitan Planning Council’s Cost of Segregation report highlights the economic and institutional damage that will continue in our region as long as we allow disinvestment and deep racial disparities to persist, including thousands of lost lives and billions of dollars in lost potential.

The second is working more on intersectionality. It’s easier to approach problems as a one-off issue – someone needs housing, or a job, or an attorney. But to really make change, at the individual and at the system levels, we need to better align our efforts and our limited resources to maximize impact. Chicago Coalition for the Homeless is one organization doing this well and, in this podcast, Funders Together to End Homelessness recently spoke with me about the Coalition’s important work connecting youth experiencing homelessness with legal aid.

Members of Chicago Continuum of Care's Youth Action Board

The Chicago Continuum of Care’s Youth Action Board, [some members pictured above] a group of young people who have lived experience of homelessness, has helped me better understand their experiences and the types of support they want and need.


What Gives Me Hope

In the last year or so, I’ve felt a renewed sense of hope and optimism. It seems like positive momentum is building and coalescing in a number of areas.

In the area of homelessness, I believe that the Polk Bros. Foundation-supported Action Agenda of the Chicago Continuum of Care (CoC) (the group of public and private stakeholders working to prevent and end homelessness in Chicago) is driving the Continuum to become more responsive, collaborative and action-oriented in our work to end homelessness.

And the CoC’s Youth Action Board (YAB), a group of young people who have lived experience of homelessness, has helped me better understand their experiences and the types of support they want and need. Their input fully shaped our Youth Homelessness Innovation Fund RFP, and one of the YAB members is helping read through the proposals and make grant decisions. It’s not a surprise that young people know best what they need, and working closely with them over the past few months has made me hopeful that we can do better.

I’m also hopeful because Mayor Lightfoot has talked about – before and after her election – the need to create policies that prevent homelessness. The Mayor said in her inaugural address that “addressing the problems of housing, isolation, and poverty in our great city is just as important as anything else we may do – and far harder to solve.” Ensuring everyone has a safe and stable place to live requires a City-level commitment to sustaining proven approaches.

This post originally appeared on the Polks Bros Foundation blog on June 24, 2019.

Debbie is a senior program officer at the Polk Bros. Foundation, a private foundation making grants of $25 million per year in support of social service, education, and cultural programs that impact children, youth, and families in Chicago. Debbie has worked in the Chicago not-for-profit community for more than 20 years on issues related to social justice and civil rights. During her 11 years at the Polk Bros. Foundation, she has focused primarily on issues related to homelessness and housing.

We joined Funders Together because we believe in the power of philanthropy to play a major role in ending homelessness, and we know we have much to learn from funders across the country.

-Christine Marge, Director of Housing and Financial Stability at United Way of Greater Los Angeles

I am thankful for the local partnerships here in the Pacific Northwest that we’ve been able to create and nurture thanks to the work of Funders Together. Having so many of the right players at the table makes our conversations – and all of our efforts – all the richer and more effective.

-David Wertheimer, Deputy Director at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.

-President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964 State of the Union Address

Funders Together has given me a platform to engage the other funders in my community. Our local funding community has improved greatly to support housing first models and align of resources towards ending homelessness.

-Leslie Strnisha, Vice President at Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland

Our family foundation convenes local funders and key community stakeholders around strategies to end homelessness in Houston. Funders Together members have been invaluable mentors to us in this effort, traveling to our community to share their expertise and examples of best practices from around the nation.

-Nancy Frees Fountain, Managing Director at The Frees Foundation

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