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Housing and Homelessness: Breaking Down Silos for Systems Change

By Seyron Foo, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation; Raji Hunjan, Oak Foundation; and Amy Kleine, The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation

The following us an excerpt from the article "Housing and Homelessness: Breaking Down Silos for Systems Change," and is a part of FHO's Collaboration for Housing Justice series originally published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. In the series, we share ideas, observations, and lessons from our housing justice efforts, including how and why the work will only move forward if it is systemic, anti-racist, and bridges sectors.

Illustration by Raffi Marhaba, The Dream Collective

America’s homeless response system has been called “the emergency room of society,” conjuring images of a space where the focus is on urgent intervention—finding shelter or managing encampments—rather than trying to prevent crises from happening in the first place. But what if we think instead about homelessness as a point on a continuum that encompasses many states: housed and unhoused, permanent and temporary, stable and unstable, affordable and unaffordable? What if we see being unhoused as a condition that is shaped by many forces and systems outside an individual’s control, and therefore amenable to system reforms that might actually prevent emergency situations, while also providing clear routes out for those who do end up in crisis?

That’s the perspective taken by the funder collaboration Funders for Housing and Opportunity (FHO), and it drives FHO’s growing emphasis on very affordable housing (meaning housing that’s affordable to those with very low incomes) as a solution to homelessness. That sounds obvious, but too often homelessness is addressed in a silo, separate and apart from efforts to bring housing justice to a system that, for too many people, creates barriers to stable, affordable, healthy homes.

Several of FHO’s members, including the authors of this article, have extensive experience in addressing the unhoused end of the housing continuum—from funding direct services for people who have lost housing, to supporting efforts to change eviction policies and practices, to investing in the development of new supportive housing. We all come to the challenge of homelessness from different starting points, based on our organizations’ interests in related issues such as renters’ rights, immigrant and refugee rights, re-entry after incarceration, the rights of people with disabilities, domestic violence, and hate crimes. However, given that housing is the platform for most successes in life, we find value in breaking down the silos among funders and across sectors as FHO begins to address America’s housing crisis. We hope the following lessons help other funders and social change leaders find ways to collaborate across sectors and silos on housing solutions:

  1. Put housing first.

  2. Think through a systems lens and work toward systems change.

  3. Elevate and support the contributions of people who have experienced homelessness.

  4. Prioritize young people.


Put housing first.

Housing is the solution to homelessness. Getting into safe, stable, affordable housing—without any requirements beyond those faced by any other renter—gives people who are unhoused the solid foundation they need to begin to address other issues, such as physical and mental health, education, employment, economic security, or substance use. In fact, since outcomes in all these areas are so interrelated, none of our other investments and interventions will likely succeed or endure if people become or remain unhoused.

A Housing First approach attends to the most fundamental need first. One model often targeted to people with chronic illnesses, disabilities, mental health challenges, substance use problems, or recent incarceration, is to fund programs that provide immediate access and long-term rental assistance for permanent supportive housing, which enables people to be housed while also receiving intensive case management and help with health care, getting a job, and other issues rather than waiting until they have “graduated” from service programs before being housed. Another approach is to fund programs and organizations that provide short-term help to people experiencing homelessness with identifying, renting, and moving into affordable housing, along with case management and services.

Numerous studies have shown that giving people more autonomy, choice, and control in this way makes it easier for them to participate in the supportive services that will enable them to remain housed. Research has found that almost 90 percent of people placed in permanent supportive housing were still successfully housed over a year later. Services have a greater impact when not required as a condition for being housed and are more cost-effective because housed individuals are less likely to use emergency services. No one organization or sector can implement a Housing First approach on its own, but through coordinated efforts across sectors, we can effectively get people into homes and on the path to thriving. 


Looking Forward

We live in a precarious time when the number of unhoused people is increasing every year, and the burden falls mainly on people of color, who constitute about 60 percent of the US homeless population even though they represent only 39 percent of the total US population. The good news is that the field of programs and services for unhoused people is pivoting toward housing justice, a way of thinking about systems and structures that includes racial and economic justice for marginalized people.

As system leaders, policy makers, program providers, and the funders who support them try to fix the systems and structures that drive homelessness, they will increasingly need to work outside of their individual silos. In particular, those who don’t think of themselves as working in this field need to see how homelessness and housing relate directly to their priorities. The link between “housing funders” and “health funders” is just one example: Since people who experience chronic homelessness require housing before they can be treated for their physical or behavioral health ailments, those of us working on health equity have a nexus point with those focused on creating a healthy, responsive housing system that helps unhoused people connect to permanent housing and the services they need in a timely way.

We need to keep building philanthropic unity so that funders’ resources are coordinated and mutually reinforcing. As FHO’s work reminds us, power doesn’t solely lie in the amount of money invested (though adequate funding is necessary) but also in the strength of a shared strategy and voice. As new voices come into this complicated and messy field, collaboratives like FHO provide the solidarity, support, and space for learning we need to break down the silos that separate us. Our grantmaking alone isn’t going to end homelessness, but where we sit in the housing ecosystem, whom we support, and how we operate as funders can make a big difference.


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