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:
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[i] – 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.
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:
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:
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 is board chair of Funders Together to End Homelessness. He also serves as deputy director of the Pacific Northwest Initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, where he oversees the foundation’s grantmaking activities to end family homelessness in the local region. For more information about Funders Together, visit www.funderstogether.org.
[i] Sean Dobson, “A Number Every Grantmaker Should Memorize: 0.1%,” Keeping A Close Eye … NCRP’s Blog, 26 September 2011.