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

Maximizing the Impact & Amplifying the Voice of Philanthropy

We can end homelessness in America, but philanthropy must be willing to step forward and challenge the status quo.

We can end homelessness in America, but philanthropy must be willing to step forward and challenge the status quo.

These are the facts: The United States remains – even during a recession – one of the most economically powerful nations on the planet. Many Americans live with a comparative wealth that contrasts starkly with the lives of those across much of the globe. Our country possesses the resources required to ensure that not one resident of our communities spends a single night without a safe, decent and affordable place to live. And yet, 650,000 people are homeless on any given night in America.

We tolerate homelessness among single adults, young people and families, labeling it an “intractable” social problem that can’t really be solved. At Funders Together to End Homelessness, a national network of funders supporting strategic, innovative and effective grantmaking to end homelessness, we find this situation unacceptable, and we’re determined to change it.

We know it can be done because communities across the country are successfully reducing homelessness. A few recent examples:

  • Salt Lake City, Utah, just announced that its chronically homeless population – composed of people with a long history of homelessness – has declined 69 percent since 2006.
  • Fairfax County, Va., reduced total homelessness 16 percent and family homelessness 19 percent in 2009-2010.
  • Between 2003 and 2009, Alameda County, Calif., reduced total homelessness 15 percent, chronic homelessness 20 percent and family homelessness 37 percent.

With critical support from government, providers, advocates, people who are or have been homeless themselves and philanthropy, these and other communities are restructuring their homelessness response systems. They are helping people without stable living situations move quickly into permanent housing and providing them with the supports they need to remain housed. Building on these and other examples, Funders Together is helping to spread the word among funders about solutions to homelessness, with the goal of attracting more of our colleagues to the work.

Granted, ending homelessness is a daunting goal for philanthropy; our resources, considered on their own, are simply insignificant in comparison to the task. Just as with health care – as NCRP’s Sean Dobson pointed out in a recent blog – the total amount that philanthropy spends annually in homelessness is dwarfed in comparison to the many billions of public-sector dollars expended annually that touch the lives of at-risk and homeless populations. This shouldn’t scare our sector away from the issue, but increase our determination to use our limited funds as catalysts for real change, for the solutions that evidence tells us will have the greatest impact. I’m not sure we’ve been doing that consistently.

Maximizing Philanthropy’s Impact on Homelessness

Over many decades, philanthropy has supported countless programs that have provided desperately needed aid to many thousands of people experiencing homelessness in America. But despite our best intentions, homelessness hasn’t gone away. In recent decades, the problem actually has gotten worse.

To me, this means we’re not doing something right – or at least as well as we could or should. Our sector’s work must be about more than just results that let grantmakers sleep better at night; we also must seek to promote the lasting, sustainable changes in the systems that touch people who are homeless. We must move beyond the management of homelessness to the collective work of crafting solutions that end it once and for all.

At Funders Together, we have learned from providers, advocates, researchers and people who are homeless about the clearest ways to end homelessness. These include:

  • Prevention and diversion: The most effective way to end homelessness is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. This means promoting “upstream” interventions, both for individuals and families at imminent risk (e.g., short-term rental assistance, landlord mediation and discharge planning from institutional care) as well as those whose trajectories create the risk of homelessness over the longer term (e.g., families involved with the child welfare system, people struggling with severe mental illness or substance abuse and survivors of domestic violence).
  • Rapid re-housing: People who fall into homelessness are better able to stabilize their lives when living in their own homes rather than temporary shelter. The goal of our interventions should be to move people who are homeless into housing as quickly as possible, while providing supports to help them remain there. While stable, safe, permanent housing should be the goal for every homeless person and family, this does not mean that shelters and transitional housing are unnecessary or irrelevant. Access to some level of emergency shelter always will be needed in every community; the key is to ensure that people recovering from homelessness stay in shelter settings no longer than is absolutely necessary.
  • Tailored services: Providing at-risk and homeless individuals and families with the right supports, at the right time, for the right duration offers the opportunity for both the most effective (for individuals) and efficient (for systems) interventions. People who are homeless are strong, resilient and often powerfully independent. Just like people who are not homeless, most prefer getting on with their lives with minimal levels of interference from the government. For individuals, the goal of our efforts should be to provide the amount of assistance that is needed and no more – from a little help with the rent or training for a better job to the more intensive intervention of permanent supportive housing. For primarily public sector systems struggling in an era of recession and diminishing resources, getting this right is essential to maximizing the reach and effectiveness of the limited funds available for this work.

At Funders Together, we don’t promote any single response to homelessness. Complex problems rarely have simple solutions, and Funders Together doesn’t believe that there is a single pathway or model to which everyone must subscribe. We support funders across the country to engage actively and collectively with their local stakeholders – providers, governments, advocates, concerned citizens and people who themselves are homeless – to craft a diversity of solutions suited to their own unique environments.

That said, we do believe that decades of research and practice point us toward housing with appropriate supports as the key. Learning from the experiences of individuals and programs that have met success in their efforts to end homelessness offers us the best hope of not repeating the errors of the past. There are a few key principles to which Funders Together subscribes to help support the efforts of our members. These include:

  • Fund what works: Proven solutions to homelessness include interventions focused on prevention, diversion, coordinated entry and housing linked to an array of tailored services.
  • Support research: Even as we’ve learned much about effective strategies that can end homelessness, we need to learn more. Applying principles of scientific inquiry to our efforts won’t always point immediately to the best solutions, but from every careful study of efforts to end homelessness we learn more about what works, what doesn’t work and how to do better with the next set of investments and programs. We shouldn’t shy away from less than promising results, but use those results to continuously improve our next steps.
  • Gather quality data: Inaccurate and incomplete data hinder our efforts to get the best possible results. Partial data will produce only partial solutions. To gain the full attention of funders – public and private alike – data are required not only to “make the case” effectively but to inform the best real-time interventions in the field. Knowing the true scope and nature of the problem as best we can will help us move the right resources into position and sustain the work that needs to be done over the long haul.
  • Align with community efforts: No one system alone can resolve the crisis of homelessness. Government systems need to increase collaborative efforts that reach across the multiple silos of public sector funding. Private funders cannot be effective if they act in isolation from both their public sector and community partners. Working together provides us with much greater chances of success.

Amplifying Philanthropy’s Voice on Homelessness

While working to link our sector better with the broad-based local and regional coalitions seeking to end homelessness is a core goal for Funders Together, we also are seeking to align the voices of foundations, corporate giving programs and United Ways to create a more effective profile at the national level.

Much of the work of ending homelessness depends on the alignment of large streams of public funding. While most private funders focus their efforts at the local level, we believe that making effective use of our collective voice at the national level also is essential to our success. The philanthropic sector can help raise the visibility of the issues, educate public officials and other stakeholders, and promote integration at a systems level to improve the likelihood that funding will be directed toward what works to end homelessness. We are not afraid of calling this component of our work an advocacy agenda. That’s precisely what it is.

There is, of course, the risk that Funders Together will be perceived as a private club for philanthropic sector entities that insulates us from the harsh realities of homelessness and creates artificial barriers among funders, the issues and the communities in which we work. We must remain ever vigilant about the inherent risks that accompany the comforts of working in philanthropy, and Funders Together exists to help counter isolation and insulation. Funders Together to End Homelessness connects funders to each other, increasing our knowledge of the issues and our ability to engage with our communities meaningfully and effectively. Our responsibilities to our many partners in this movement – especially those who struggle every day with housing instability and homelessness – demand nothing less.

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.

This opinion piece originally appeared in the Fall 2011 edition of NCRP’s Responsive Philanthropy

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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