One of our top priorities at the Raikes Foundation is to support system-wide efforts to prevent and end youth and young adult homelessness in King County, Wash. Although our funding and focus is local, we recently had the opportunity to participate in a national gathering spearheaded by Funders Together to design Foundations for Youth Success—a community of practice for funders who are investing in efforts to prevent and end youth homelessness. We were energized to be among more than 35 private and public funders sharing ideas and brainstorming about ways to advance efforts to make youth homelessness a rare occurrence in our communities.
The conversation is an important one for us. The Raikes Foundation was recently one of the 2014 winners of the HUD/USDA Secretaries’ Award for Public-Philanthropic Partnerships, which recognized the collaborative effort we’ve been part of in King County to address youth homelessness. So we were pleased to contribute lessons from our work to Funders Together’s national community of practice. Collaborating with our peers during last week’s gathering, three themes underscored the importance of this effort.
1. This is the right time and moment to address youth homelessness. The “window of opportunity” to focus on youth homelessness is now. Nationally, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness officially adopted the goal to end youth homelessness by 2020. There are efforts in multiple states including Washington, Minnesota and Maryland to strategically address youth homelessness. And at the local level, many communities and funders are increasing their efforts to end youth and family homelessness as they make progress on reducing chronic adult and veteran homelessness. This means that as funders get smarter about what strategies are effective for homeless youth, there is an increasingly receptive audience to implement solutions.
2. Funders—especially private funders—are uniquely positioned to play a catalytic role. There is so much we can do—whether it’s convening a diverse stakeholder group across multiple systems or using our voice to highlight and elevate the issue of youth homelessness. Private funders bring flexible dollars to the table, which can fund innovative demonstration projects. We can uniquely support projects that public funders don’t prioritize, including efforts in research and evaluation, agency or system level capacity building, and/or pilot projects. The Foundations for Youth Success effort is a great venue for trading ideas and learning what has worked in different parts of the country.
3. This is an opportunity for us to learn faster and more effectively together. As I mentioned, we fund regional efforts in King County to address youth homelessness. Many of the funders who attended last week’s meeting also fund locally. Yet, many of our communities face common challenges. Big questions, like: What are effective prevention strategies? How can we make youth homelessness rarer by working with child welfare or school systems? What can we do to make youth homelessness brief? What are innovative and appropriate sets of housing options that are most effective for youth and young adults? What about education and employment? How can we incentivize and better connect diverse players such as employers, schools and other support service providers to better serve youth who have experienced homelessness?
No single organization has enough time or money to answer these questions on its own. We need to get smarter about how we learn faster and more effectively. As a community of funders, we should learn from each other’s successes and failures, and double down on funding that maximizes the catalytic power of our investments.
Launching this national community of practice couldn’t be timelier. Thousands of young people are experiencing homelessness in our communities today. This is a problem we can solve. By working together, we can leverage each other’s efforts and act collectively to make youth homelessness rarer. Even if we can’t avert the crisis for youth and young adults completely, we can certainly ensure that it is a brief and one-time occurrence.