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Washington Area Women's Foundation

Leading from Behind to Address the Affordable Housing Crisis and Homelessness

This post is second of a two part-series focused on philanthropy’s role in ending homelessness in collaboration with Funders Together to End Homelessness. It originally appeared on The Center for Effective Philanthropy on April 4, 2019.

The affordable housing crisis isn’t new. It isn’t even an “emerging” crisis. Our country has been in the midst of it for decades and neighbors in our communities who are living in poverty are suffering the most from its effects, putting them at risk of experiencing homelessness.

As we embark on the next Presidential election cycle, we are hearing more and more from candidates about affordable housing, or the lack therefore of, and how states across the country are grappling with how to best address it. For those of us working in the homelessness field, this isn’t revolutionary. We’ve been yelling that the sky is falling for years, and we are finally starting to see momentum in both public and political will to give this issue the attention it needs.

The housing and homelessness sector has some of the most passionate and driven advocates. And because of their tireless work advocating for better policies and much needed federal funding, as well as implementing programs that center families and individuals who are most vulnerable, the harmful consequences of this situation, while still at emergency status, have been mitigated. But this work must continue full speed ahead — and then some — if we are to truly end this crisis.

This is where philanthropy is needed. If we are dedicated to providing access to safe and affordable housing to all and ending homelessness, philanthropy must step up to the plate and lead from behind to be part of the solution.

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All Funders Should Care about Housing and Homelessness

The lack of affordable housing cannot and should not only be a concern to housing and homelessness funders.

If you fund health, you need to be funding housing. Studies have shown that health outcomes are linked to stable, safe, and affordable housing. Funders like Kaiser Permanente understand this link and are taking action by providing $3 million to address affordable housing and homelessness.

Is education part of your grantmaking portfolio? Then you should be engaging in work on housing. Students who experience homelessness or are at risk of housing instability are more likely than their non-homeless peers to be held back from grade to grade, have poor attendance or be chronically absent from school, have more disciplinary issues, and drop out of school.

Funders prioritizing workforce development need to be thinking about its intersection with affordable housing. Without employment, housing stability is at risk. And without dependable housing, it is near impossible to retain employment.

Are you a funder committed to reforming the criminal justice system? The success of criminal justice reform could result in a new homelessness problem, as returning citizens continue to face barriers to accessing housing.

Without access to safe and affordable housing, all other aspects of life become increasingly difficult for individuals to manage, let alone to sustain the ability to thrive.  It is the underlying issue to many other problems and challenges individuals and families face. And only once stable housing has been established can we begin to successfully address the other challenges. Funders working on all systems and issues areas must make housing a priority in their grantmaking and focus on upstream solutions to prevent homelessness and housing insecurity.

Racial Equity at the Forefront

If we are talking about housing or homelessness and not also prioritizing talking about racial equity, we are setting ourselves up to fail at our mission.  Because of structural racism, both current and historical, people of color disproportionally experience homelessness. In fact, black people account for more than 40 percent of people experiencing homelessness despite comprising only 13 percent of the total U.S. population. And this is by no accident.

Racism in the housing system is rooted deep in our nation’s history and was perpetuated through redlining and mortgage discrimination. Decades later, the effects from these actions are evident today and have created vast disparities within housing, which have an impact across all sectors (think: health, education, employment…sound familiar?). If we don’t think about naming and correcting these disparities at the systems level, we will never touch the surface of meeting housing needs and ending homelessness.

Philanthropy must understand that it isn’t enough to just claim that racial equity is important. Rather, it must implement a commitment to racial equity by centering it and ensuring all grantmaking is done through a racial equity lens. We’ve been encouraged by the energy from both philanthropy and national partners that are naming racial equity as a priority. But it is important to remember that racial equity shouldn’t just be another issue that we add to our plates. Instead, it should be at the center of all issue areas.

Philanthropy’s Responsibility to Act

Philanthropy’s role in this work cannot be overstated and its responsibility cannot be ignored. It is vital for funders to lead from behind and support efforts to address the affordable housing crisis and end homelessness.

Fund what works and innovate. When it comes to homelessness, we know what works. Evidence-based solutions such as Housing First models including rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing have been proven to both prevent and end homelessness. Funders can invest in these solutions and increase the resources to build capacity for stronger and more robust programs. Likewise, philanthropy must also be bold in its investments. By funding innovative interventions, philanthropy gives communities the flexibility to take risks and prove what can work so those interventions can then be brought to scale.

Collaborate. Funders that collaborate together and build partnerships through public and private relationships provide a critical backbone to this work. This collaboration, both within philanthropy and together with the public sector, can support and ensure that efforts to build strong and sustainable programs throughout communities positively influence and effectively create systems change. To scale impact, funders must build public-private partnerships and leverage public dollars.

Engage in advocacy and policy work. Systems change is multi-faceted and, at its core, happens through enhanced policies that affect the issues we most care about. As funders, many times we are under the impression that engaging in this work isn’t for us. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Funders can educate public officials on what is working in communities, write op-eds to inform the public, and support grantees to build capacity for grassroots organizing. Philanthropy has a unique voice that should be used to push and influence.  Engaging in policy and advocacy work can make all the difference between moving the needle and staying with the status quo.

Center those with lived experience. The true experts in this space are those who have lived experience. Their expertise informs us of what is working and where there are gaps in programs. So why are these individuals not included as part of the solution? As funders, we should ensure that folks with lived experience have a permanent seat at the decision-making table because without their voice, all our best efforts will fall short.  Are we and our grantees giving up power and funding in a way that trusts historically marginalized communities to develop solutions to housing stability that is not rooted in dominant white culture?

Do it all with a racial equity lens. Yes, all. We have largely funded systems and services based on an equality lens. But we haven’t acknowledged the structural and historical racism that will necessitate investing in what people need to ensure race does not determine outcomes, reestablish past inequities, and shift funding to feel more like justice. Not only should funders be sure all grantmaking has a racial equity lens, but they must also do the work internally to examine the organizational structure and acknowledge the white dominant culture philanthropy works within. We cannot expect our grantees to do to this work without putting ourselves under the microscope and making a commitment to addressing equity at our foundations first.

Amanda Andere is the CEO of Funders Together to End Homelessness. She has spent over fifteen years working in the nonprofit and public sector as a leader committed to racial equity, social justice, and housing affordability through advocacy for systemic change. Follow her on Twitter at @AmandaAndere.