Perspectives

An Equity-Based Approach to Fighting Homelessness

By Rosa Benitez

What does it mean for philanthropy to make a commitment to equity and its intersection with homelessness?

Why a commitment to equity?

For more than 65 years, the Weingart Foundation has focused on serving the underserved by supporting nonprofit organizations in Southern California. However, we’ve come to realize that despite our best efforts and the good work of others, the reality is that conditions in much of our region are getting worse. Southern California is increasingly divided into separate and unequal places, and we do not all have the same access to the resources. Across the region, too many people are struggling daily for the things some take for granted—safe streets, good jobs, and quality health care, housing, and education for our families.

This is why we have made a commitment to advance social and economic equity. This is a long-term commitment to base all of our policy and program decisions on achieving the goal to advance fairness, inclusion, and opportunity for all Southern Californians—especially those communities hit hardest by persistent poverty.

For us, equity means expanding opportunity by correcting the imbalances we see across racial, ethnic, and socio-economic lines in our education, health, human service, economic, and criminal justice systems.

How did we get here?

The Weingart Foundation’s commitment to equity was a logical next step in our long-standing approach to effectively serving underserved and marginalized communities. It was an intentional process that began by examining our internal practices and policies with regard to equity and inclusion at all levels of the foundation. After our Board unanimously made the decision to go “all in” on equity, we released our initial strategies and grant guidelines in August 2016.

Since then, we have taken this first year to listen and learn from our grantees and the people they serve so that we could hear directly what was needed most. This culminated into the development of our FY 2018 Program Plan, which incorporates our learnings over the past year, and most importantly, confirms we will remain committed to providing Unrestricted Operating Support in order to support nonprofits’ capacity and effectiveness. We believe that strong nonprofits and leaders rooted in the communities they serve are the best agents for lasting change, and should lead the way in fighting against systemic inequity. We have also further refined our program guidelines and developed an equity lens to guide all our grant decisions.

Before and after our equity announcement, we’ve had internal conversations about the implementation of our equity commitment and what it means to operate with an equity lens. We are very much at the beginning of our equity journey and we are committed to continuing to learn from, and partner with, nonprofits and the people who experience inequity first-hand.

Why homelessness?

Homelessness has long been an interest area of the Weingart Foundation, and one that we see as a big equity issue given that individuals experiencing homelessness are some of the most marginalized and disadvantaged people in our society. We’ve made considerable investments in this area over the years, including prioritizing permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness and supporting the Home For Good Funders Collaborative, a public-private partnership to end homelessness in Los Angeles County.

Weingart is one of the founding members of Funders Together to End Homelessness – Los Angeles/FTEH-LA (previously known as the Los Angeles Homeless Funders Group). As a steering committee member of FTEH-LA, I recently moderated a session that explored the intersection between equity and homelessness, specifically focused on racial equity. I was joined by a dynamic panel of guests including FTEH’s CEO, Amanda Andere, former nonprofit leader, Los Angeles City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, and the executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, Peter Lynn.

A number of Weingart program officers attended the session. As a team, several key points stood out to us. First and foremost, addressing equity is not just a conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion, but rather it is about the systems change that needs to happen to address real inequity. With respect to homelessness, it is important to look at race because the disproportionality in homeless numbers is staggering nationally and even more so locally as people of color experience homelessness at significantly greater rates. For instance, while 13% of the U.S. population is African American, African Americans represent an astounding 40% of the homeless population in the country. Similarly, African Americans make up 8% of the population in Los Angeles County; however 40% of the county’s homeless population is African American.

Additionally, speakers underscored the importance of understanding the historical context of racism that has led to the structural inequities faced by homeless people of color. As Amanda Andere said, “The homeless system should not be the system to address hundreds of years of institutional racism. However, we as funders have an obligation to do something within the communities in which we lead to begin to examine the policies and practices that continue to contribute to structural inequality – and that is where we begin to make a difference.”

Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who wrote a position paper titled Homelessness in South Los Angeles, noted that housing alone will not address homelessness. It is also necessary to address the root causes of homelessness such as racism, poverty, lack of employment, incarceration, addiction, mental illness, domestic violence, and being a foster youth. Addressing homelessness with an equity lens means looking at these drivers.

These are important reflections for us at the Weingart Foundation as we continue to learn what it takes to fully implement our commitment to equity in all of our work, including the collective effort to end homelessness. We look forward to ongoing conversations with funder colleagues, nonprofit leaders and community members. It is critical to work together to change the systems driving homelessness, especially among African Americans and communities of color. Only then will we begin to see an enduring transformation.

Rosa Benitez joined the Weingart Foundation in 2008 as a Program Officer and is currently Senior Program Officer. Rosa is responsible for overseeing the Foundation’s revolving Program-Related Investment (PRI) Fund and working in the areas of housing and homelessness. She possesses more than 15 years experience working in the public, nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. Prior to joining the Foundation, Rosa served as a Program Officer at the California Community Foundation, where she managed its grantmaking portfolio in the area of housing.