The importance of philanthropy in creating public-private partnerships cannot be overstated. Similarly, philanthropy has a critical role to play in convening diverse stakeholders to drive change. It is not enough to simply talk and learn about best practices. Furthermore, action plans are insufficient if they do not focus on systems change. Integral to systems change is addressing and changing racist policies that have led to people of colour disproportionately experiencing homelessness.
At Funders Together to End Homelessness, we believe systems change must centre racial equity in preventing and ending homelessness. We understand that structural racism and racial inequities are a root cause of homelessness and that historical and persistent race discrimination in housing and related sectors such as employment, healthcare, education, and criminal justice, contribute to high rates of homelessness for people of colour. The homeless crisis response system must look internally to ensure it isn’t perpetuating inequity. To advance racial equity, we need an overhaul of systems, not just in homelessness, but across sectors.
What is systems change?
Systems change involves shifting the way policies, resources, and processes operate, with the clear understanding that these changes have ripple effects and that systems are continually evolving. Systems thinking enables people to map the unintended consequences of actions, allowing them to take responsibility for the problem and empowering them to be a part of the solution. At its core, system change addresses and remedies the underlying causes of homelessness in order to both end and prevent it.
There are many reasons that homelessness persists despite our best efforts. Homelessness is a symptom of much bigger problems like poverty, lack of affordable housing, and stagnant wages. Racial inequity in homelessness and access to affordable housing are inter-sectional. We have to connect to other social change movements that address inequity in order to uncover solutions and effect real change. We must do our part to research, learn, listen, and act together to address the inequities in our current systems.
For example, gross inequities exist because of the criminal legal system and the criminalisation of poverty and homelessness. Cities across the U.S. have pushed efforts to criminalise homelessness by making it illegal for people to sit, sleep, and even eat in public places. At the same time, people leaving prison are prevented from obtaining employment and housing, ensuring their future homelessness. This perpetuates a vicious cycle: Communities that are already disproportionately affected by homelessness, like people of colour or LGBTQ young adults, endure further hardships because of crushing barriers that arise from contact with the criminal justice system.
Laws and policies like these are harmful, unethical, expensive, and ineffective or counterproductive. We know what works: access to safe and affordable housing. Through systems change, the criminal justice and homeless response sectors can collaborate to revamp how each system works individually and in connection with the other to address homelessness.
Collaboration is necessary to build political and public will and drive this kind of policy change. Policymakers can confuse linear and systemic thinking. As a result, they can recommend policies that support quick fixes at the expense of long-term solutions. Funders themselves, and groups that they support, must educate policymakers about a systems approach that creates sustainable, system-wide solutions to complex problems like homelessness.
Where can philanthropy start with systems change?
Over the years, we’ve seen homelessness philanthropies shift from funding mostly shelters and programs to funding systems-level work. We’ve helped our member funders think through systems change by challenging them to center racial equity when answering these four key questions:
- Why does homelessness persist, even though we have the best intentions to end it?
- How do we, as an organisation, inadvertently contribute to the problem?
- What are the leverage points that produce sustainable, system-wide results?
- How can each of us motivate others to implement, even if doing so is against their self-interests?
Philanthropy can provide leadership by supporting action at the community level. Systems change that addresses a chronic, complex problems at the community level involves four stages:
- Identifying and engaging key stakeholders. Funders have a remarkable ability to bring together diverse stakeholders. Philanthropy can coordinate people in related program areas such as public sector officials at the municipal, county, state, and federal levels, businesses that may be concerned about the impact of homelessness on economic development; and people who have experienced homelessness.
- Developing a shared understanding of why the problem persists and creating a shared vision for the future. Philanthropy can support systems mapping with a racial equity lens. This is an effective way to expand the understanding of homelessness in communities, and ultimately lead to a place where stakeholders can agree on a creating and implementing a shared vision for the future.
- Testing for a commitment to change. Change is hard. Often people can be just as committed to the status quo as they are to “ending homelessness.” In order for change to naturally occur, people must fight the urge to maintain the status quo.
- Bridging the gap between the vision and current reality. Successful systems change leaders have the courage to stay the course on a plan that might produce short-term pain for long-term gain. At the same time, they need to try to ensure sufficient short-term results to build momentum. This vision cannot be fully realised unless the current reality of structural and racial inequities are addressed.
We must start with collaboration, by learning together and focusing on re-evaluating systems. We start by with a shared vision of a more just and caring community that seeks to end homelessness by fundamentally changing the social constructs and systems that got us here. We collaborate with people and groups in related fields, such as the health and criminal justice community who are engaged in the hard work of tackling racial inequity. No one learns or changes in isolation. Together, we can make a difference.
Amanda Misiko Andere CEO, Funders Together to End Homelessness
Lauren Bennett, Director of Communications and Policy, Funders Together to End Homelessness
Stephanie Chan, Director of Membership and Programs, Funders Together to End Homelessness
Martha Toll, Board Member Funders Together to End Homelessness, and Executive Director, Butler Family Fund