Faith-Based Organizations: Fundamental Partners in Ending Homelessness

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Best Practice | May 4, 2017

Files: Download the full paper on Faith-Based Organizations

Faith-based organizations serve as the backbone of the emergency shelter system in this country – operating at a minimum nearly 30 percent of emergency shelter beds for families and single adults at the national level.  They play a critical role in delivering services to people in crisis and significantly fewer households experiencing homelessness would be served and more would remain in crisis without them.  Homelessness will not be ended without faith-based organizations.

To examine the unique contribution of faith-based organizations to homeless services and present the perspectives of faith-based organizations on the most pressing gaps in resources and efforts needed to end homelessness, their role in local governance and systemic planning, and how a national shift to a Housing First philosophy has impacted their work, the National Alliance to End Homelessness examined housing inventory data and interviewed and/or surveyed over 160 faith-based organizations. Here is what was learned.

Key Takeaways:  The role of faith-based organizations in ending homelessness

  • Faith-based organizations provide a significant amount of the emergency shelter services and permanent housing interventions for homeless people.  Nationally they provide more than two-of-five beds emergency shelter beds for single adults and have the capacity to house more than 150,000 people on any given night in shelter, transitional, and permanent housing programs.
  • Faith-based providers around the country indicate that a significant shortage in the availability of affordable housing is a both driver of and impediment to addressing homelessness. More attention needs to be focused both nationally and locally on this issue.
  • Faith-based organizations play an active role in local planning and Continuum of Care governance activities, including serving as leaders in implementing a systemic approach to homelessness, and participating in and leading coordinated entry in their communities.  Despite some communities integrating faith-based organizations into their work, providers reported the need for CoC governance to more actively integrate non-HUD-funded faith-based providers into the process.
  • Faith-based organizations that implement a Housing First approach have found it to be an effective approach for ending homelessness as well as compatible with their beliefs.  And while many providers believe that Housing First programs can be a critical tool for ending a person’s homelessness, faith-based organizations also expressed concern that, when implemented, the services provided in this approach can fall short and thus are not able to address important issues such as substance abuse, etc.
  • Faith-based organizations are critical but in some ways underutilized partners in ending homelessness. Because of their strong connections within the community, faith-based organizations have strong volunteer and advocacy bases and flexible donor funds that may be overlooked and could be harnessed more strategically.  Communities could do a better job of partnering with and leveraging the extensive network of services and connections offered by faith-based organizations.

What’s Next?

Responses from this snapshot of faith-based organizations have provided insight into some actions that CoCs, faith-based organizations, and the federal government can take to improve coordination and better integrate efforts.

What can CoCs do?

  • Make a concerted effort to engage those faith-based organizations currently serving on the CoC.  Develop a faith-based subgroup that strategically engages organizations in the CoC process.  This is particularly important for engaging organizations that do not receive HUD funding and may not see the value of their participation. 
  • Work with faith-based organizations to strategically map out available resources (e.g., partnerships, volunteers, advocacy base) and connections that could help to fill local gaps in services. 
  • Change the narrative about emergency shelter.  Faith-based organizations provide important crisis services throughout the country. CoCs should be mindful about language that may demean or devalue the important work of faith-based organizations in this area.

What can faith-based organizations do?

  • Educate CoCs about what specific services and resources faith-based organizations can provide to the community. Participate in a strategic discussion about how these resources can fill gaps.
  • Strengthen engagement in the CoC governance process.
  • Break down silos within the local faith-based community.  Partnering with other local faith-based organizations can encourage a broader community and faith-oriented discussion about ending homelessness.

What can the Federal Government do?

  • Prioritize resources and programs to address the affordable housing crisis in this country.
  • Develop guidance for CoCs about how they can more intentionally engage faith-based organizations at the local level.
  • Devote more resources and technical assistance to communities to support local governance efforts, including coordinated entry.

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Ending homelessness requires a systems approach where communities effectively coordinate and align available resources and services. Building inclusive partnerships between secular and faith-based service providers in a community is a critical step in this process and is needed to address homelessness locally.  Without faith-based partners at the table, communities will not be able to truly achieve an end to homelessness.