Taking an Objective Look at Homelessness in Florida

The issues surrounding homelessness, and what we as funders need to consider, were brought into sharp relief this week with the release of Snapshot: A High-Level Review of the Regional Approach to Homelessness in Jacksonville, FL

This report, commissioned by a collaboration of funders including the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida, the United Way of Northeast Florida, and the Henri Landwirth Family Advised Fund, outlined the progress made and the opportunities ahead for supporting Jacksonville’s homeless population. 

We learned that while Jacksonville has experienced a 32 percent decrease in the overall homeless population (compared to the national reduction average of 10 percent during the same period), there are notable areas for improvement, including a troubling 20 percent increase in unsheltered, single adults in Jacksonville.

Jacksonville is a very collaborative community and, as funders, we have a strong history of working together to address community issues. We were each supporting homelessness with our own grantmaking, and even serving on some of the same community committees – and we have seen some progress in our community with specific populations such as veterans and homeless families. But, as we thought collectively with one another and the providers in our community about the best approach to deepening our commitment to support this area, we weren’t convinced we had the right information to make the best decisions regarding a more comprehensive plan to move forward. 

There were conflicting opinions regarding a best practice approach, and we wanted to understand more about positive outcomes in other communities. So, we decided to engage an outside, objective expert to help us review our work and provide advice on the best approach moving forward. 

To find the right expert, we asked our providers to whom they looked for best practice advice and whom they knew to be nationally respected in this field. They suggested Barbara Poppe, a former executive director for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. They believed her deep experience in this area gave her insight into the many organizations across the country and the most recent research. She knew all the right questions to ask and was poised to interpret the data and make recommendations. Most important of all, she was truly objective. 

This was critical as we learned that some of the opinions in the community were not based on objective data. To build a comprehensive approach, good data and factual information is essential. It became clear that we all needed to be accessing and acting upon a consistent baseline of information. 

From The Community Foundation’s perspective, we learned that we are the largest private funder of homelessness in our city. This is due to the power of a collection of donor-advised funds alongside unrestricted funding. We have seen the power of working collaboratively in the community and we think we will be able to educate and engage our fund holders and other stakeholders more deeply for added investment. 

We are just beginning to digest all the information contained in the report, but the benefits of commissioning the report are already occurring. For instance, the process of pulling the providers together to have Barb Poppe conduct interviews and acquire data led to a timely and coordinated response to address the COVID-19 potential during the early days of the pandemic. 

From the Jessie Ball duPont Fund perspective, this process reinforced our belief that our nonprofit providers are superheroes, especially right now as they have been asked to work harder during this unprecedented pandemic. We want to support their work and do so in a way that will help to achieve the greatest impact. We are ready to roll up our sleeves and open our funding to support the path forward. Having the data and recommended strategies to address this issue will support providers, city administrators and private philanthropy to work together better.

This report is only the beginning, there is much work to be done in our community and in educating our boards and funding partners; we look forward to engaging them more fully to participate in building solutions.

Katie Ensign is Vice President of placemaking and administration at the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund; Kathleen Shaw is vice president of programs at The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida.


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