We won’t end homelessness until we figure out what actually works
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At a reunion of formerly homeless men and women who had graduated from our shelter and job training programs, I listened anxiously as our speaker, Stanley, announced that he didn’t love his job. The room was filled with funders, donors, and influencers such as, government officials, philanthropists, and employers; board, staff, and current clients — all of whom we hoped would be inspired.

Stanley had the floor and everyone’s attention. He shared how he had once had a decent job (IT support on Wall Street), made a decent living, had a home with a loving wife and kids. But he also had an addiction, and it cost him all he had. His wife threw him out, he was fired from his job, and his dependency led him to the streets, and eventually to our front door.

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The BRC, which was formerly called Bowery Residents’ Committee, was founded half a century ago by men like Stanley, who had fallen on hard times and just wanted another shot. BRC provides shelter, drug treatment, health and mental health care, job training, and housing. That’s what we are paid to do. 

 

Countless well-meaning nonprofits in this country are working on many fronts, making extraordinary efforts to help people like Stanley. But not enough know whether their efforts are having impact. And too many of those who fund and regulate nonprofits perpetuate this situation by paying us for activities and buying quantity, sometimes irrespective of long-term quality.

But we cannot run, sustain, and grow our organizations by relying solely on emotion. We need proof of our impact. We created a system for measuring performance and management, assessing our work, and instilling a culture that values inquiry and encourages adaptive management. This led us on a journey of inquiry and analysis, of acquiring knowledge and learning from it — a journey that continues today.

We must strive to manage with data. Like staff, facilities, and dollars, data is a tool and resource; how we use these resources determines how we achieve outcomes. A few years ago, we saw a decline in our success at helping people find and retain housing. Yet, the data said our clients were entering the labor force at ever greater average wages and sustaining employment at consistently high rates.

Further analysis revealed the root cause was the near-elimination of rental subsidies: Our clients were facing less secure housing options, and therefore at higher risk of returning to the shelter. So, we developed a new financing model: We are building a new homeless shelter and leveraging its revenues to also build 135 affordable apartments in the Bronx.

In our city, two nonprofits, each operating a homeless shelter of identical capacity, will receive contracts for comparable amounts — even if clients stay at one shelter for an average of a year and at the other for an average of six months. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2017, BRC clients had shelter stays 38-percent shorter than the New York City average and were half as likely to return to shelter after moving to housing, a savings of nearly $13,000 per person. So

That night at our event, Stanley shared how he came to accept responsibility for his actions and learned to live with his disease. He explained that while he didn’t love what he had to do every day at his institutional catering job, he loved what it provided him: to come home each day, see his wife and tuck his kids into bed at night.

Just as Stanley could change, nonprofits and our funders can. I know from experience. It’s time for the nonprofit sector to move beyond measuring efforts and activities, and focus instead on how we can together achieve success more consistently and more often.

Muzzy Rosenblatt is CEO and President of BRC, a nonprofit that provides housing services to homeless individuals in New York City. This commentary builds on his chapter in the recent book, What Matters: Investing in Results to Build Strong, Vibrant Communities. 


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.