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

Let’s Fix the System

In January 2012, Mayor Kasim Reed launched an initiative to dramatically reduce street homelessness in Atlanta. 

Atlanta is in the eighth year of its ten-year plan to end homelessness. Like many other cities, we have invested a tremendous amount of time and resources to this end, and have made great strides in galvanizing our community and launching a list of solid initiatives. Also like other cities, the recession and rising unemployment and foreclosure rates have undermined efforts to move the needle and the homeless count has remained flat.

In January 2012, Mayor Kasim Reed launched an initiative to dramatically reduce street homelessness in Atlanta. As leader of this new effort, I was immediately struck by the question: “Do we strive to build bigger and better programs, more housing, better services, or is there another way to get ahead of the curve?”

Homelessness Creates No-Win Situations

One afternoon, a woman who was homeless walked in to my office and helped me think more clearly about the answer. I will call her Ann. God only knows how she found me because my office is in an obscure part of City Hall, behind a door marked “Streets and Highways.” She told me she’d lost her job and then her home when her mortgage rose almost 50%.  She tried to live in motels, but couldn’t sustain that so started living in her car to avoid exposing her 15- year-old daughter to a shelter.

Unfortunately, her daughter was taken into state custody when they were found living in the car. And Ann was told she was “crazy.” In her crisp Caribbean accent, Ann assured me, “Ms. Lampley, I am not crazy! I was trying to protect my child!”

There may be different versions to this story depending on the story teller, but I couldn’t help but wonder if I, or any other parent I knew, wouldn’t also choose a car over a shelter. I also wondered how we would react if every inch of our security was gone, if each tomorrow was completely uncertain, and if the one thing still within control―protecting our children―was taken out of our hands. I wondered if we might not appear just a bit “crazy.”

I immediately wanted to help Ann find a home so she could get her daughter back. After all, that’s what we do with our influence, we fix things. We fix people and we fix situations. So, I started dialing every executive director I knew who could fix this.

After I failed to reach the third one, she stopped me. She said, “I don’t need your help. I want you to HEAR me.” She then leaned over my desk, looked straight in my eyes, and said: “I-want-you-to-fix the SYSTEM!  In your position, you have the power to fix the SYSTEM!”

Fixing Homelessness Means Fixing the System

She proceeded to tell me her experiences navigating our “system”―a system seemingly full of unintended consequences and unintended barriers. As I listened to her, I concluded that Ann was not crazy at all.  She was likely more lucid than most people―homeless or otherwise. And she was right. She didn’t need fixing, she needed me to remove barriers and create opportunity, to make sure that policies and procedures aren’t creating consequences that prolong rather than resolve homelessness.

I’m thankful that Ann found me. I feel an obligation to ensure that as we work to dramatically reduce street homelessness, we are looking across government entities and providers and having one conversation around a shared strategy. And that we are funding against that shared strategy. And that we are tracking performance to ensure that, at the end of the day, the unsheltered are measurably better off.

Consequently, we’ve turned our focus to the end results, measurable outcomes, and a systems approach with a handful of high impact initiatives. Additionally, we’ve put together an advisory board and planning team that represents decision makers in every aspect of homelessness: housing, behavioral health, faith, foundation, business, providers, and state and local governments.

Will we dramatically reduce street homelessness? Only God knows for sure.  Or maybe Ann…

Susan Lampley, Innovation Project Officer, leads the Mayor’s homelessness initiative for the City of Atlanta.

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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