Light at the End of the Tunnel: Is Philanthropy Finally Making Real Progress on Homelessness?

The problem of homelessness became prominent on national news during the 1980s and, since then, this issue has become symbolic of America's inability to solve stubborn social problems. Over just the past few years, homelessness has become notably worse, with big cities like New York and Los Angeles reporting record numbers of homeless people. The number of such individuals dying on the street has also hit record highs. 

Solving homelessness has never been a huge interest among foundations and major donors, and for some understandable reasons: This is a super-tough problem to solve, involving a complex set of social and economic issues. It's been hard to scale solutions that work and the amounts of money it takes to make a dent here—especially when it comes to building more affordable housing—are daunting to private funders, who don't have nearly the resources of the public sector.

All in all, you can see why many funders might have written off homelessness as a no-win issue. 

Lately, though, the terrain has been changing—and become far more hopeful. As we've been reporting, funders have zeroed in on the idea of creating more permanent supportive housing, which provides homeless people with a place to live and the services they need to rebuild their lives and function in society. In addition, rising interest in impact investing—along with more sophistication about public-private partnerships—has made it possible to mobilize new resources behind this idea, with philanthropic dollars leveraging the kind of larger money needed to make progress. 

Los Angeles has been at the forefront of these efforts, and we've reported on the especially important role that the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation has played in this regard. 

But progress is happening elsewhere, too, such as in Connecticut. Last summer, the Connecticut Department of Housing announced that the state is on track to become the first in the country to end chronic homelessness. "We’ll always have a homeless population, but what we know today is that we can house them,” said Evonne M. Klein, the state's housing commissioner. “We have a system in place to identify homeless people and rapidly house them. So we’re—this is important—‘exiting’ people out of homelessness, not managing them.”

In turn, part of the story of Connecticut's success here traces back to the work of the Melville Charitable Trust, a foundation established in 1987 and based in New Haven. For three decades now, its grantmaking has maintained a strict focus on homelessness: understanding it, preventing it, ending it. As far as we know, Melville is the only major single-issue funder in this space. Built on the shoe fortune of Dorothy Bigelow Melville, the trust has assets of about $150 million and disburses a total of $7-$8 million per year. Quite a bit of its grantmaking has been focused on Connecticut, where the foundation has been deeply involved in backing the supportive housing movement for many years, making the state an important testing ground for this approach. But Melville also gives for policy research and advocacy nationwide. (If you've heard of this niche funder before, it's surely because of its sponsorship of National Public Radio. It's given six-figure grants for years to support coverage of poverty and homelessness.)

In addition, Melville has been an important player in galvanizing philanthropy writ large to tackle homelessness. Along with seven other funders, it formed Funders Together to End Homelessness in 2004, providing seed money and in-kind support to get that effort off the ground. We've written before about Funders Together, which has now 175 members—growth that says something about the new energy on this issue. 

Melville says that homelessness "is too big and too complex a problem to be approached in silos" and believes that the best results will come from a larger systems approach that stresses collaborations of different kinds, along with "creating the public will and leadership to make change happen."

Little progress can be made toward building more affordable housing without collaboration, given how many moving pieces tend to be involved in making such projects happen. As well, these efforts take a substantial level of public will and leadership. In Connecticut, Governor Dannel P. Malloy has made ending homelessness an official priority and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has invested even bigger political capital in making progress on this issue. 

One important aspect of Melville’s policy and media funding is to shift the conversation away from “treating” homelessness and toward solving it, with permanent supportive housing—rather than palliative services like shelters and soup kitchens—offering a way to do that. Needless to say, it's far more appealing to donors and politicians alike to tackle a problem that really feels solvable. It's more appealing, too, to the taxpayers who are asked to foot the bill. 

Overall, grantmaking on homelessness is an area worth watching closely right now. It's also an issue that underscores a strength of philanthropy, which is the ability to stick with an issue over the long run, even as the political winds change. 

Last year, in describing Connecticut's progress on homelessness—and the Melville Trust's critical and patient role in this work—the foundation's executive director, Janice Elliott, wrote:

If someone told me and my colleagues working on this new model that it would take over 20 years to end chronic homelessness, we might have been discouraged. Our neighbors were suffering and the need was immediate. But tenacity paid off, and we are soon to see the ultimate proof of this.

It's hard to know if politicians like Dannel Malloy and Eric Garcetti will be still be working to end homelessness a few years from now. But it's a sure bet that some funders, and certainly Melville, will still be on the case.