An End to Homelessness? Behind the Rising Optimism Among Funders

Homelessness is a famously tough problem—so tough that's it's long scared away many funders who'd rather take on more tractable challenges. But here's a hopeful thought: Maybe philanthropy can finally help solve this problem by ensuring that the homeless have access to appropriate housing.

While that point may sound either obvious or unrealistic, it underlies how many leading anti-homelessness organizations and funders are approaching the issue these days. Provide the chronically homeless with permanent supportive housing—which includes not just a place to live, but an array of services—and they'll have a good shot at getting back on their feet. 

We've written a lot about how funders have coalesced with hopeful new energy around the idea of permanent supportive housing. And recently, we reported on how growing optimism here has drawn in some new funders, such as Paul Allen, who recently put up $30 million for supportive housing in Seattle

To be clear, this approach is not about tackling the urban housing affordability crisis writ large. Homelessness may be one symptom of a lack of affordable housing, but there’s a big difference of scale. Philanthropy can’t furnish cities with plentiful housing for the lower and middle classes. However, by working with a range of partners, it may be able to make a big dent in chronic homelessness, possibly eliminating it altogether in some places.

To get a bird's eye view of what's happening in this area, I recently spoke to Amanda Andere and Lauren Bennett of Funders Together to End Homelessness, a national affinity group. Andere is CEO of Funders Together and Bennett leads its public affairs work. They described a major shift in thinking over the past 10 years on homelessness. Despite the bleak numbers from cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, funders are increasingly hopeful about what they can accomplish.  

Andere says funders have been increasingly willing to embrace systems thinking and intersectional approaches, not only through wrap-around solutions like permanent supportive housing, but also in how they view the issue. Advocacy matters, and so does public sentiment. And partnerships are critical, especially public-private initiatives. 

In Los Angeles, anti-homelessness ballot initiatives—the city’s Proposition HHH and the county’s Measure H—have been successful. In turn, they've dovetailed with a philanthropy-driven program, Home for Good, a funders’ collaborative led by the United Way of Greater L.A. and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. Those funders, which include Hilton, the California Community Foundation (CCF), and the Weingart Foundation, have worked side-by-side with L.A.’s Mayor Garcetti to coordinate resources. According to Andere, more sophisticated public-private funding models are one way philanthropy can multiply its impact. Related to this, we've been reporting on growing impact investing in this space, an important development that brings new resources to the table. 

In addition to L.A.’s Home for Good, members of Funders Together are spearheading partnerships in cities across the country, including Connecticut’s Reaching Home campaign through the Melville Trust, Houston’s The Way Home and the Gates Foundation’s All Home campaign in King County, Washington. 

At the same time, Andere cautions that in many ways, anti-homelessness philanthropy is still “program-rich, systems-poor.” There’s a lot of local charity out there to alleviate the plight of the homeless, but not necessarily to tackle root causes.

This is also changing, though. Funders are acknowledging things like the link between housing and health outcomes, and how important it is to address homelessness among youth or laws that make it easy to evict low-income tenants. This applies to stalwart funders in the field, like the Melville Charitable Trust in Connecticut, as well as newer faces like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Paul Allen.

Intersectional approaches are popular these days, and it’s the task of funder affinity groups to let their constituents in on the most effective strategies. Funders Together has compiled a variety of resources for funders, including a messaging guide. 

The elephant in the room (pun intended) is the likelihood of HUD funding cuts under Donald Trump’s administration and GOP control in Washington. Andere made it clear that stripping away resources like HUD’s $2.25 billion Homeless Assistance Grants would definitely have an effect. The federal low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) is a major boon to affordable housing development, and its removal could impede lots of projects. HUD’s community development funding can also play a big role in preventing homelessness, and the scale here goes beyond what philanthropy can compensate for. 

That’s why it’s good to see energy around supportive housing, public advocacy and impact investing on the local level. Right now, the signs are promising that the fight against homelessness is entering a new and more successful phase—even if it's still too early to say how scaling up new approaches will ultimately play out. One thing is clear, though: Anyone who still sees homelessness as a hopeless cause hasn't been paying enough attention lately.