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

Making Connections: Economic Opportunities and the Pathway to Ending Family Homelessness


Across the country, communities -- and funders -- are creating systems that work for families.  

Although these days I am fortunate enough to work in the comfortable environment of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, my conversations with people who experience homelessness leave me wondering what I would prioritize for myself and my family in the event we were to become homeless. Stable housing would be first on my list, but without a permanent rent subsidy (and such subsidies are available to less than one-quarter of the families that could benefit from them), I would quickly start to worry about how I would pay the rent. Which means I’d also want a job that delivered an adequate paycheck, or at least the promise of a pathway towards family-wage employment.

Happily, rapid re-housing has—since the recession of 2008—emerged as one of the most promising approaches to ending family homelessness. This approach prioritizes moving a homeless family into permanent housing as quickly as possible, providing assistance with housing identification, short-term rent and move-in assistance, and tailored case management and supportive services. In many communities, rapid re-housing has been able to make use of the private rental market, and successful landlord recruitment has been an important part of this success.

Built on the premise of each family’s strengths and resiliency—rather than focusing solely on issues that may have led to their homelessness—rapid re-housing provides, by definition, comparatively short-term rental assistance, often limited to 6-24 months. Not surprisingly, at the end of the rent subsidy, families are often faced with the dilemma of rent levels that may exceed what they can comfortably afford based on their incomes.

Although there are a number of tools that can help on this front, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, helping families increase real earnings has become one of the essential components of our local efforts. This isn’t easy, as it requires reaching across systems to build partnerships between the homelessness/housing and workforce development/employment sectors. With a limited history of collaboration, it has taken some time to develop effective, scalable relationships across these systems.

One of the most successful efforts has been the Housing and Employment Navigator Model. Building Changes pioneered the model, which works in partnership with local workforce development programs and housing and homeless providers. The navigator model has, in new and innovative ways, combined housing and employment services for homeless families that have been rapidly re-housed in Washington state. The program offers assistance in obtaining the job training, education and employment needed to establish career paths towards economic stability, while also preventing returns to homelessness.

These initial efforts met with so much success that WorkForce Central has been awarded an additional $6 million in federal Department of Labor Innovation Funds to build on the lessons learned and significantly expand the navigator program.

Washington state is not alone in tackling this issue. As a recent report from Reaching Home documented, a number of communities across the U.S. are taking bold and innovative steps to link economic security and housing stability as critical keys to the work of ending homelessness.

For example:

  • In Connecticut, CTWorks East career centers connect one-stop workforce centers with the local rapid re-housing program.
  • In Mercer County, New Jersey, the Family Housing Initiative combines rapid re-housing with services that include working to eliminate barriers to employment that threaten long-term housing stability.
  • In Massachusetts, the Secure Jobs Initiative targets employment training and job placements for families in rapid re-housing and rental voucher programs. Sponsored by the Paul and Phyllis Fireman Foundation, the program has engaged regional partnerships that increased the connections between the homeless and workforce development systems, with access to childcare for parents who are entering the workforce.
  • Although they are relatively new initiatives, these programs have documented promising results, including increased earned family income, increased rates of job retention, and connections to employment with career pathway potentials in fields such as health care, manufacturing, construction, retail, social services, hotels and hospitality, security, property management, and financial services.

Despite the fact that these efforts have, for the most part, been localized initiatives that required buy-in from programs and funders in limited geographies, I’m optimistic that the lessons learned in these communities can help to inform a new priority for closer collaboration among agencies at the federal level, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Labor.

If I found myself actually walking in the shoes of the homeless families that are at the center of our current efforts, I’d want to be able to secure exactly the things that rapid re-housing and employment programs are trying to produce today: A safe, stable place to call home, and a job that pays me enough to pay the rent, feed my family, and perhaps even enjoy dinner out and a movie on a Saturday night.


David_Wertheimer_2012a.jpgDavid 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.

This blog originally appeared on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Impatient Optimists.

Photo credit: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Employment help at the Greenbridge YWCA Career Development Center (King County, Washington)


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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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