Solving Complex Social Issues: 7 Lessons Learned

Houston’s work to address homelessness has become a model nationwide – but it didn’t happen overnight. Here’s what we learned in 10 years that can help other communities.

By: Ann B. Stern

Photo courtesy of Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County

For over 10 years, 100-plus public and private organizations in the Houston region have worked in unison to move more than 28,000 people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing with supportive services. As a result, Houston reduced its homeless population by 63% and hopes to end chronic homelessness within the next couple of years, becoming the first major U.S. city to do so.

This collective effort – known as The Way Home – created meaningful change for the city and its people and transformed Houston from having one of the highest per capita homeless counts in the country to becoming a model for addressing homelessness.

The results are impressive, but the work has not been easy or quick. Over the course of a decade, Houston Endowment identified several lessons learned that we believe are critical to helping communities solve complex social issues in the future.

Here’s what we learned:

Social issues cannot be solved by any one entity working alone.

The Way Home is an immense collaboration. It comprises more than 100 partners, including homeless service agencies, local governments, public housing authorities, the local Veterans Affairs office, nonprofits, and community stakeholders. Geographically, it encompasses Harris, Fort Bend, and Montgomery counties.

The many organizations at the table shared one collective interest — to reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness. They worked in lockstep toward that goal, simultaneously changing the system while also defining their purpose within it.  

Houston benefited greatly from exceptional political will for this work. Not only was it a top priority for City Hall, but the White House offered the city an expert on homeless aid, Mandy Chapman-Semple, who served as a special advisor. The city then established an advisory committee to provide oversight, and with strong leadership in place, a continuum of care for the homeless population began to unfold.

The city and county, along with their housing authorities, helped coordinate public funding that persuaded organizations to join The Way Home. Nonprofit groups began to coordinate and identify the best opportunities to align their work. One organization became designated as the single point of intake; another focused on case management. At Houston Endowment, we saw a collective effort coming together and were quick to step in and provide support. As a funder, we not only provided financial resources but also served on the mayor’s advisory committee, encouraged other funders to contribute, and guided our existing grantees through changes in our funding. (All grants geared toward homelessness would be allocated to organizations actively aligned with The Way Home.)

Systems-level change requires public-private partnership.

Reducing homelessness in Houston took a big tent of individuals and funding from both the public and private sectors.

Change began in 2009, when the Hearth Act stipulated that to receive federal funding, cities had to comply with a housing-first policy and organizations had to operate through continuums of care. Then, in 2012, the Department of Housing and Urban Development identified 10 U.S. cities facing significant challenges with homelessness.[1] Houston was sixth on the list. That brought federal resources — both funding and expertise — to Houston.

With these resources, the city and county brought others together, and The Way Home took shape.

For The Way Home to be successful, our community identified a need for 2,500 additional permanent supportive housing units. Thirty million dollars in privately funded capital was needed to access more than $600 million in public funds. The opportunity to draw down such significant support was compelling to us. We contributed to the private capital fund and encouraged our peers to do the same.

Non-financial assets can make a big difference.

Houston Endowment was pleased to provide financial support, but even more significant was the impact of our staff. Our program officers spent countless hours on the ground working with service providers to help them to understand and align with the goals of The Way Home.

Serving as trusted experts, our team uncovered opportunities for these organizations to shift the way they do business, work together toward common goals, and maximize resources throughout the system.

Establish effective governance and leadership to carry the work forward.

As plans for The Way Home came together, establishing effective leadership and a uniting governance structure was paramount.

Service providers continued to work directly with people experiencing homelessness, but the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County became the lead coordinating entity. It aided collaboration across the spectrum of services, used data to implement the right programs and constantly reassess, and ensured our community had the right funding and other resources needed.

Start planning for sustainability early.

Similarly, we had to look ahead to the future state of this work. When the effort began, former Mayor Annise Parker made reducing homelessness her top priority. Her dedication to the cause and drive to establish a continuum of care was vital to the early success of The Way Home. Subsequent leaders, including current Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County leaders, including Judge Lina Hidalgo, sustained momentum, secured funding, and empowered their staff to carry out the needed work.

Houston’s leaders have changed over the past decade, as has the complexity of reducing homelessness. But we anticipated these changes.

The Way Home planned its initial approach with three groups in mind: veterans, those experiencing chronic homelessness, and families. The mission was to move the most vulnerable people into housing first, and progress was monitored with the collection of real-time data. In 2015, Houston effectively ended veteran homelessness, and the city aims to be the first major city to end chronic homelessness. The work has continued thanks to governance and a forward-thinking team that continues to review data, learn, assess, and adapt.

Influence must be carefully navigated.

Our impact with The Way Home was made possible because of the trust and reputation of Houston Endowment among stakeholders. We recognized our position as a funder in the collaboration and leveraged that dynamic for good. It is an immense responsibility — and privilege — to ensure that the influence we provide is for the benefit of our community and its residents.

Philanthropy has a very distinct role in that it can deploy risk-free capital, but philanthropy doesn’t have all the answers. Throughout this effort, we aimed to fund the development of good information to support public leaders and public entities to use their dollars more effectively. Our relatively small amount of funding was also used to redirect public dollars at the federal, state, and local level.

Seek opportunities ripe for change.

In 2011, Houston Endowment was close to shifting our focus away from homelessness because we saw little progress in the area. But then circumstances changed. Houston was named one of 10 cities to receive federal funding and expertise from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, homelessness became a mayoral priority, and organizations began collaborating. The stage was set to seize an opportunity to drive change that wasn’t possible before.

As a place-based funder, Houston Endowment is deeply committed to addressing our community’s most significant challenges and reducing barriers to opportunities. Along with the elements we believe are essential for a vibrant, thriving, and inclusive community – preK-12 public education, civic engagement, arts, and parks – we stand ready to address emerging opportunities with potential to significantly advance our mission. We recognized homelessness as one such opportunity.

Every issue that we care about — be it homelessness, education, or civic integration — is part of a large, primarily public system. Philanthropic funding can’t fill in gaps or solve all problems, but it can bring people to the table, test innovative approaches, and direct public dollars toward a common goal.

Learn More:

[1] New York Times (14 June 2022) How Houston Moved 25,000 People From the Streets Into Homes of Their Own. Retrieved from here.