Carla Javits on COF Tuesday

(This is a guest post from Carla Javits, President of REDF, who is covering the Council on Foundations Conference for Tactical Philanthropy)

By Carla Javits

I attended an excellent set of panels on the media and philanthropy at a mini-summit held at the truly astonishing Newseum. Alberto Ibarguen, President of the Knight Foundation who also chairs the Newseum’s board noted that the President and members of Congress who stroll from the White House to Congress and back will pass the Newseum, and see the huge notation carved into the façade quoting the Constitution – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, … or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”. The discussion was all about the crucial role of philanthropy in ensuring a universal access to honest information as news sources change dramatically – more urgent than ever if we are to retain a strong democracy.

At the end of the day – tired – I headed back to the conference center and was energized all over again by the momentum and success of a group of funders focused on ending homelessness around the country. National funders have partnered with local foundations (like the Frey Family Foundation in Minnesota and the William S. Abell Foundation in Washington, D.C.) – committing more than $50 million to the creation of supportive housing and related strategies to end homelessness around the country.

Joe Weisbord of Fannie Mae moderated. He emphasized the urgency of acting to end homelessness, noting that the issue is compelling to funders who focus on housing, children, prison reentry, and health. Because philanthropy plays such a major role, Weisbord noted (I wholeheartedly agree) that the issue could bear greater attention at the Conference’s plenaries and other sessions. This was the only session on the topic.

Dr. Dennis Culhane of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice is one of the leading researchers on ending homelessness. He pointed out that while the homeless system alone can’t fix the whole affordable housing problem or the other underlying drivers of homelessness, we can make the experience of homelessness survivable (hundreds die homeless each year now); we can prevent many many more people (including children) from ever becoming homeless, and we can limit homelessness to as short a period of time as possible. His basic prescription is to focus on housing not shelter – summarized in his paper, “Rearranging the Deck Chairs or Reallocating the Life Boats”.

Local presenters included Diane Randall who heads up Connecticut’s Partnership for Strong Communities which successfully mobilizes and advocates for public and private investments in affordable and supportive housing in Connecticut. She noted that philanthropy provides not only financial resources, but also fuels confidence and hope.

Minnesota’s Jim Frey and Carleen Rhodes of the St. Paul Foundation talked about the $5 million grant made by the Frey Family Foundation to help the Governor meet his goal of 4,000 units of permanent supportive housing. With 1,700 units already built, they are now campaigning for additional support from other philanthropic families and institutions in Minnesota with increasing success. Ohio’s Terry Donlin Hueseman of the Osteophathic Heritage Foundation described their partnership with the National Alliance to End Homelessness to address rural homelessness throughout Ohio.

And finally David Wertheimer of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation described the next phase of their multi-year program to address family homelessness in the State of Washington noting that when the program started in 2000 the goal was to create 1,500 units of permanent and transitional housing for homeless families. As of 2007, this goal had been met, and the Washington Families Fund has been established to fund services for homeless families. The State of Washington recently allocated $6 million, and 18 private and public funders contribute to it.

Based on this progress, the Gates Foundation is inspired to continue to invest and is launching a large-scale new homeless families initiative focused on prevention, coordination, rapid rehousing, the provision of the “right services at the right time in the right amount”, and links to economic opportunity.

Wertheimer closed by quoting Anthony Love who is the head of the Coalition for the Homeless in Houston, Texas — “Nobody likes change except a wet baby, and even the baby complains about it”.

After 15 years at the Corporation for Supportive Housing (whose President Deborah De Santis attended the session today) I know how tough it is to engage philanthropy, government and the community in making the changes required to address homelessness. But I’ve also witnessed impressive results fueled by non-profits, philanthropy, business and thousands of people in local communities around the country working together. All reports are that chronic homelessness – after years of work to increase the supply of supportive housing – is finally falling in this country.

A good way to end the day, and a fine example of something this conference is all about — real results and impact through a combined effort of philanthropy, non-profits, business, government.