Originally published in Philanthropy News Digest, December 19, 2012
By Janice Elliott, Executive Director
The Melville Charitable Trust began its work on homelessness in 1990 with two simple thoughts: first, the persistence of homelessness in the wealthiest democracy in the world was scandalous; and second, it was a solvable problem.
Two decades later, we have seen the difference that investments in proven, lasting, and cost-effective solutions have made and are more convinced than ever that the problem of homelessness can be solved. Moreover, these solutions go beyond providing emergency, palliative responses to improving people’s lives. Here are some of the things we’ve learned:
Decent, safe, accessible, and affordable housing is indispensable to solving the problem of homelessness. This may seem obvious, but permanent housing is often overlooked in favor of expanding emergency shelters, transitional living programs, or homeless service centers – services designed to respond to the needs of people in a housing crisis. While the term “housing crisis” implies a single precipitating event that results in housing loss, for most people a shelter is one stop in a much longer experience of housing instability. This may include stays with relatives or friends and frequent moves. Because housing loss is so intertwined with issues of income, health, safety, and social and family dynamics, the longer-term solution is not as simple as providing someone who is homeless with a place to sleep or an apartment referral.
Today there is increasing agreement that a stable housing situation is the first necessary element in addressing these other issues. By reframing homeless assistance as housing assistance, we organize our attention and resources around solutions and not the crisis. Under such an approach, shelters would continue to serve their essential function of providing safety and immediate comfort but would be seen as a temporary solution while work is done to get the individual or family into stable housing as quickly as possible and to help them stay housed.
Providing housing with support services is the smart, humane, and cost-effective solution to long-term homelessness. It is critical that individuals and families be connected to the supports they need and want in order to remain housed, stay healthy, and care for their children. This means matching services to individuals’ needs – no one size fits all – and targeting the most vulnerable for the highest-intensity and -cost support, enabling them to move from shelters, the streets, foster care, jail, or hospitals directly into permanent supportive housing (PSH). PSH is an evidence-based practice that effectively reduces recidivism through crisis systems and restores health and stability to people written off as being too difficult to serve. The Corporation for Supportive Housing’s Web site highlights findings about the effectiveness of the supportive housing model.
The public sector must lead the way through significant investments in housing and service programs that result in individual and family independence. Ongoing, sustained government funding is essential to long-term housing affordability and the provision of effective support services. Philanthropy can leverage these funds through its own investments in local capital projects and by supporting education and advocacy efforts that underscore the critical importance of government investment in housing stability and wellness.
Investing in Housing Solutions
Developing housing and services is a complicated and expensive process involving many players and interests. How can funders best invest in solutions? The answer depends on the community – all housing is fundamentally local- but here are some ways that funders have been effective:
Leveraging public and private funds. Philanthropy can provide the upfront risk funds needed to get housing projects started or to get people into housing quickly. They can provide program-related investments (PRIs) or grants to fill financing gaps on strategically important housing development projects, or join nonprofit loan pools that provide short-term loans to housing organizations to finance the early stages of a project (e.g., siting surveys, architectural and engineering designs, appraisals, and environmental assessments). Home Funders in Massachusetts is a great example of a collaborative in which private funders combine their resources to develop affordable housing for low-income families.
Many states and municipalities also have financial assistance pools attached to homelessness prevention or rapid-re-housing programs that provide small emergency loans or grants to families to address short-term problems such as lack of a security deposit, utility bills in arrears, or moving costs. The National Alliance to End Homelessness provides links to resources about prevention and rapid re-housing programs.
Convening groups and incentivizing partnerships. Funders have the power to convene disparate groups to discuss critical issues and brainstorm new ideas and approaches to affordable housing and homelessness services. Based on those discussions, funders may decide to fund partnerships between organizations willing to pilot new initiatives or work together in new ways. The Melville Charitable Trust supports and participates in the Opening Doors – Connecticut initiative, a broad-based coalition of state and community stakeholders working together to end homelessness in the Nutmeg state.
Setting targets. Philanthropy can support the development of community housing needs assessments, targets, and strategies for expanding housing options. Some of the greatest successes in addressing homelessness have occurred in communities that clearly identified and targeted a priority population for assistance (e.g., people living on the streets) and worked tenaciously to make sure every member of that population was housed. The 100,000 Homes campaign provides a model for this type of focused, sustained effort.
Funding advocacy. The Melville Charitable Trust has funded long-term investments in education and advocacy around many issues critical to housing stability, including rental subsidies and the availability of low-cost capital. We invest at both the state (Connecticut) and national levels through organizations such as the Partnership for Strong Communities, the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the National Low Income Housing Coalition, and the Corporation for Supportive Housing.
We believe our society has more than adequate economic capacity to invest in the housing and provide the services needed to eliminate homelessness. Philanthropy plays an important role in helping to foster the public and political will required to scale up what works. The Melville Charitable Trust is a founding member of Funders Together to End Homelessness – a national network of funders supporting strategic, innovative, and effective solutions to homelessness. We invite you to learn more and network with other like-minded funders engaged in this critical effort.