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Bruce Ripley

About Bruce

Grantwriting for the Homeless; Going Beyond HUD

If you raise funds for organizations serving the homeless, you probably know that U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant opportunities have become more competitive and stringent.  Many HUD-funded projects have received no funding increases in years and certain types of projects (social services-only projects, for example) have tumbled down HUD’s list of priorities.

Fortunately, a number of foundations are willing to fund programs benefiting the homeless.  Here are tips to consider as you look for support outside of HUD:

Go beyond the obvious statistics:  The number of homeless folks in your area is a necessary, but not usually a sufficient statistic to get a funder’s attention.

Here’s an example that’s helped my applications.  In a needs assessment conducted by a state housing agency, I found an index showing the percentage of renter households with household incomes under $20,000 who were paying more than 30% of their incomes on rent and utilities in each county.

One of the three counties of relevance to my proposals had the highest percentage of such households in the state.  The other two counties ranked in the top ten.  Obviously, these little-known numbers revealed how many people teeter on the brink of homelessness beyond those who already are.

Housing agencies and your local homeless coalitions can be good sources for data like this.  But you should also analyze annual progress reports for your HUD-funded projects to spot trends that advance your case.

Tell them you don’t rehabilitate very many people:  You read that correctly.  “Rehabilitation” implies a re-learning of various life skills.  But if your organization provides any form of social services, you may want to explain that a lot of homeless individuals actually need “habilitation,” meaning you help them gain some basic life skills they never learned in the first place.

I think most people reading my proposals already know this on some level, but it doesn’t hurt to illustrate that solving homelessness entails more than housing.  I’ve used the rehabilitation/habilitation distinction successfully on behalf of substance abuse treatment programs.  Perhaps you can adapt this strategy to your case.

Get in the trenches:  Serve food at a soup kitchen.  Help conduct the annual point-in-time count of the local homeless population for your region’s Continuum of Care process.  Spend time with outreach workers who search riverbanks and alleys looking for homeless veterans.  When it comes to hands-on experience that boosts your writing, the possibilities are endless.

Learn how to address controversy:  In my last article about writing for substance abuse treatment programs (3/26/08), everything I said about addressing controversy applies here.  Here’s a quick review of my rules of thumb:

  • If NIMBY (not in my backyard) opposition or zoning disputes are slowing down your project, ask prospective funders whether they’ll accept your proposal anyway.  Some will.
  • Resist the urge to demonize the opposition.  Use a simple, tactful description instead.
  • Address the controversy to the extent it helps the funder make an informed decision.  Provide specifics such as whether you have a building permit or the proper zoning.

Identify your most “fundable” projects:  I’ve had somewhat better luck getting foundation grants for social services-only projects than I have for housing programs.  The services-only projects for which I’ve obtained grants have these advantages:

  • They serve far more people than housing programs usually do;
  • Services-only projects are often the starting point for people who are truly homeless and penniless, whereas housing programs typically help participants who’ve attained some level of stability;
  • These particular services-only projects involve a high level of collaboration among multiple agencies;

Involve the homeless:  Some foundations want to know how the target population is involved in carrying out the project or in conducting the evaluation.  Even if a funder doesn’t specifically ask, showing the meaningful involvement of current or formerly homeless individuals in your project can make a favorable impression while improving your services.

HUD may undergo some changes when a new administration comes to Washington in 2009.  But in any case, you’ll need to supplement your HUD funds with other support.  Hopefully, these strategies and others will advance your effort to solve one of our most pervasive, complex problems.

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