As Social Needs Mount, How Can Philanthropy Best Alleviate Homelessness?
By LUKAS HAYNES
and LYNN LEWIS
AS EXTREME COLD and big snowfalls have battered the United States this winter, many cities and
towns have opened their doors and wallets to those whose lives are most vulnerable to weather: the homeless. Winter is often the time when people become especially aware of those without
a place to call home—and fortunately it
spurs a strong philanthropic impulse.
But given growing social needs across
the country, it is fair to ask: What types
of giving contribute to real change for
the roughly 650,000 Americans who are
Philanthropy has always played a vital role in supporting life-sustaining
services for people who are homeless,
such as emergency shelters and soup
kitchens. Those services are critical,
but they only offset the pain; they don’t
deal with the causes of the problem.
In New York, sidewalk homelessness is particularly visible to both its
residents and tourists from around the
world. From 2009 to 2010, the city’s
homeless population soared 34 percent, with shelters taking in more than
37,000 people, over 40 percent of them
children. That is a 10-percent increase
since 2005, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg vowed to cut the homeless population by two-thirds. In recent years,
more than 90 percent of service providers have failed to meet their goals for
moving people into permanent homes.
So why are we falling so far short and
Instead of looking at the real
causes of homelessness, donors
and policy makers focus
on the behavior of people who
become homeless—as if
it could be avoided if people
made better choices.
what can philanthropy do about homelessness?
Today most private giving mirrors
the way society at large has come to
think of homelessness. Instead of looking at the real causes, donors and policy
makers focus on the behavior of people
who become homeless—as if it could be
avoided if people made better choices.
They rarely consider the failure of labor and housing markets that put people on the street with little notice or a
health-care system that often bankrupts households. And most philanthropy seeks to provide direct services to
heal those harmed by the problem rather than financing the kind of advocacy
work that could transform our economy
and housing stock into one that offers
opportunity for all.
Over the past three years, America’s
poor have been hit three times: by a national housing crisis; predatory real-estate investments built on a strategy of
driving low-income renters from their
homes; and historic levels of unemployment. It is no wonder that homelessness
MATT ROURKE/AP IMAGES
has increased in 31 of 50 states and in
the nation’s capital.
Those homeless who are members of
the advocacy group Picture the Homeless felt a twinge of irony as the economic crisis hit. After all, their livelihoods, and those of many Americans,
have been stuck in a recession for years,
even as the boom years helped America’s upper income brackets grow richer
At the same time, the persistent
myth that everyone is a pink slip away
from being homeless is simply not true.
It only obscures the economic analysis
required to reverse homelessness.
In New York City, for example, 80
percent of the homeless are women and
children from low-income families, and
a similar demographic portrait can be
found elsewhere. The cause of homelessness is primarily extreme poverty and
the constrained access to education and
opportunity faced by women and minorities born into poor families.
To deal with the systemic problems
that cause homelessness, we need a dif-
ferent approach. Social work and social
services do not generally lower rents or
increase incomes for communities as a
Obama’s Silence on the Achievements of Struggling Nonprofits Is Deafening
PRESIDENT OBAMA uses his bully pul- pit to tout profit-seeking corpora- tions, but he rarely uses it to promote nonprofits that deliver social justice at home and abroad.
When Mr. Obama went to India in
November, for example, he was accompanied by corporate CEO’s, and unabashedly promoted U.S. exports and
companies like Boeing and Harley-Da-vidson.
The president says he will go anywhere in the world to promote trade,
presumably for the jobs that exports
create. Fair enough, assuming fair-trade agreements.
But so far, he has rarely gone anywhere, even to places near the White
House, to highlight the good works
done by national advocacy and charitable groups seeking a fairer society. It is
puzzling why Mr. Obama, who knows
how to attract the news media to his
cause, has left in the shadows the all-important “independent sector” (to use
the language of President Johnson’s
health and education secretary John
After all, nonprofits also employ mil-
lions of people and are a major pillar of
the American community. These non-
profits are run by a cadre of workers
who probably voted for Mr. Obama in
far bigger numbers than they did for his
opponent in the presidential election.
So far, President Obama
has rarely gone anywhere
to highlight the good works
done by charitable groups
seeking a fairer society.
passed that abolished child labor, instituted fairer labor standards and safer
workplaces, protected consumers from
unfair business practices and product defects, and given ordinary people greater access to the courts to hold
manufacturers of dangerous products
All these and other advances in jus-
tice could be stopped or eroded by un-
due influence of commerce over civic
values—exemplified in recent decades
by a corporate government delivering
handouts, bailouts, bloated corporate
military contracts, and an unprece-
dented level of subsidized inequality of
wealth between the top 1 percent and
the rest of the population.