Out of the blue, the phone rings and the caller on the other end says, “We are inviting you to apply for a $5 million grant, are you interested?”
How does that happen? To find out more, we recently visited with Thao Costis, CEO of SEARCH Homeless Services, whose organization was one of two agencies in Houston that was recently awarded a $5 million grant from the Bezos' $2 billion Day One Fund to support the homeless and build high-quality preschools in low-income communities.
Despite all efforts, in 2010 Houston ranked in the top 10 cities across America in numbers of people experiencing homelessness. In 2012, under the leadership of former Houston Coalition for the Homeless CEO, Marilyn Brown, the coalition shifted its focus to housing first. The initiative was dubbed, “The Way Home”. According to SEARCH’s website, “The Way Home” is a community wide network made up of nonprofit homeless service providers, and public housing providers who sought major investments in supportive housing and generous philanthropic support (local funders formed a collaborative to fuel the efforts as well) to provide wrap around services to rapidly rehouse homeless individuals and move them towards long term sustainability.
The Coalition’s systems approach to ending a complex problem has made Houston a national model. Between 2011 – 2017, Houston’s numbers of homeless individuals dropped by more than 60 per cent.
Source: SEARCH website
Since 1989, SEARCH has pursued a mission of providing hope, creating opportunity, and transforming lives of men, women, and children who are trying to break free from the cycle of poverty and homelessness.While the organization has added services over the years to meet the growing needs of the homeless population in Houston, SEARCH became a member of the Coalition for the Homeless in the Houston area united to address the growing problem of homelessness, especially for families with children.
Since 2011, SEARCH has expanded their Housing Department by more than 30% with a focus on meeting people where they are and getting them rapidly rehoused through the myriad of nonprofit and government partners in Houston. Long term case management aids in employment and education focused on how to remain housed by shifting priorities and learning to build community. During its last fiscal year, SEARCH provided services to 4,394 homeless individuals seeking outreach, housing, education and training.
WHY SEARCH HOMELESS SERVICES
SEARCH’s efforts garnered the attention of Bezo’s One Day Fund Advisory Committee, a small group of expert advisors, headed up by Nan Roman with the National Alliance to End Homelessness, that provided input to the Bezos Day One Fund team to select these organizations. Costis credits the Houston Coalition for the Homeless shining a spotlight at the national level around the efforts of all and in particular the data driven outcomes achieved. SEARCH and the Salvation Army in Houston were selected for their predominant role in reducing homelessness. The message from the One Day Fund Advisory Committee, according to Costis, “use the funds to end homelessness” in Houston.
While Search and the rest of the Way Home coalition in Houston can and should be proud of the deep positive impact to date, the work is not complete. On any given day 3000 - 4000 of Houston’s most vulnerable homeless individuals are without shelter. Costis quoted a recent Zillow article that states homelessness rises faster where rent costs a third of an individual’s monthly income. In Houston, rents increased more than double the national average since Hurricane Harvey and families continue to fall through the cracks, especially those without support for mental health and/or substance abuse issues.
We asked this long-time homeless provider what she thinks the answer to ending homelessness is, without hesitation, Costis replied, “Housing.” Elaborating on SEARCH’s role, “Our strategy is to stay focused.” explained Costis. whose team employs the following four-pronged approach:
Engage and Stabilize
House and Build Community
Employ and Increase Income
Educate and Break the Cycle
Costis went on to add that the Coalition must now focus their efforts on more creative housing solutions such as Houston’s first inebriate housing facility, Temenos III, opened earlier this month by Temenos CDC. SEARCH collaborates frequently with Temenos CDC, New Hope Housing and the Houston Housing Authority,
along with many other organizations.
Costis admits they are still mapping out the details of how they will spend the generous grant from the Bezo’s One Day Fund. In general, she states the funds will be used to expand and enhance their services, continue the community wide dialog and augment the holistic approach to help the remaining most vulnerable sector of Houston’s homeless community with targeted wrap around services to address the ongoing needs.
About the author: Carole Little is the lead consultant and founder of Third Sector Consultants.
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