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Harnessing the Power of Collective Impact to End Homelessness

Santa Clara County, California, is home to Silicon Valley, one of the wealthiest—and most expensive—places to live in the country. In 2008, public and private leaders came together to issue a new mandate: It was time to stop managing homelessness and begin ending it. Ten years later, I can say from experience: when everyone comes together to do their part, the results are incredible. And our success was largely due to the willingness of our community to engage in a collective impact model.

John Kania & Mark Kramer first wrote about collective impact in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2011. In that article, they identified five key elements: 1) A common agenda for change, including a shared understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving it through agreed upon actions; 2) Consistency in collecting data and measuring results across all the participants to ensure alignment and accountability; 3) A plan of action that outlines and coordinates mutually reinforcing activities for each participant; 4) Open and continuous communication across the many players to build trust, assure mutual objectives, and create common motivation; and 5) A backbone organization(s) with staff and a specific set of skills to serve the entire initiative and coordinate participating organizations and agencies.

Our first collective action was to work together to house 1,000 of our most vulnerable chronically homeless residents. We set community goals and housing targets and worked to secure investments from our partners. Our private sector partners and the City of San Jose funded case workers who had access to new housing subsidies, both in the form of a Chronic Homelessness Direct Referral voucher allocation from the Santa Clara County Housing Authority, and through permanent supportive housing subsidies from the County of Santa Clara created for this purpose. The County of Santa Clara made a big bet by investing county dollars to create a locally funded subsidy pool. Our non-profit partners courageously chose to come together to work across agencies to house and serve the vulnerable men and women identified by a common assessment tool, and everyone sat together to learn from each other and make improvements.

Given our crisis of homelessness, we knew that housing 1,000 people was only the beginning. So, when Santa Clara County Board Supervisor Mike Wasserman asked the county to do whatever it took to better understand the true costs of homelessness, our next challenge was to work together with Economic Roundtable to combine our HMIS data with the administrative records across our public safety net system. As a result, we learned that over a six-year study window, 104,206 people experienced homelessness, costing our community approximately $520M a year. Home Not Found also showed us that 5% of the people experiencing homelessness in our community accounted for 42% of those costs. This early research helped to pave the way for the County of Santa Clara’s social impact financed Pay for Success project focused on chronic homelessness—the first of its kind in California.

During this time, the board members of our backbone organization, called Destination: Home, also agreed to serve as the CoC Board, which enabled us to convene stakeholders to both implement the HEARTH legislation, and more importantly, secure consensus for a new Community Plan to End Homelessness. Once finalized, the Plan was approved across our community, with the Board of Supervisors and nearly every city council in our region endorsing the plan and agreeing to work together to solve homelessness.

We used the collective impact model again when then President of the Board of Supervisors, Dave Cortese, joined forces with San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo to accept the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness via the All The Way Home campaign. Destination: Home also serves as the backbone for this effort, which has brought our impressive community partners together to collectively house almost 900 Veterans and counting. Over the last two years, we’ve seen a total of 3,708 men and women permanently housed across the entire system of care, with a 93% retention rate. All of this success has been possible because everyone involved, from the funder to the elected official to the service provider, agreed to a common set of strategies and a commitment to do their part towards meeting the collective goals.

Most recently, we brought together our public and philanthropic partners, like Google, Sunlight Giving, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, to collectively fund a new $3.5 million Family Homelessness Prevention System. We are working in partnership with our Emergency Assistance Network, where each agency is using a common assessment tool to identify families most at risk of homelessness, and providing substantial financial support to prevent them from losing their homes.

Our community’s biggest success to date was the passage of Measure A. Led by the County of Santa Clara, our collective willingness to solve homelessness resulted in the Board of Supervisors’ leadership putting a $950 million affordable housing bond measure on the ballot. It passed with 67.8% of the vote in 2016. A year later, they’ve already funded the first six projects—all focused on new extremely low-income affordable and supportive housing. Our county has an ultimate goal of seeing at least 4,800 units of supportive housing and housing affordable to our lowest income residents developed throughout Santa Clara County over the next ten years.

Of course, we still have a long way to go. While we’ve seen incredible success at building a new foundation of responsibility to collectively respond to our homelessness crisis, we are also home to one of the most expensive rental markets in the nation. Our community’s severe shortage in affordable housing has exacerbated our homelessness crisis. But through collective impact, our system has changed—and it’s changed quickly—to be more responsive to our most vulnerable residents. We still need thousands of new homes that are accessible to individuals and families experiencing homelessness, and we need all of the cities in our county to work together towards fulfilling that goal.

Collective impact allows us to take full advantage of opportunities as they arise. The critical partnerships and trust built through Destination: Home have allowed our community to articulate and execute a set of mutually reinforcing goals and strategies that are measured through shared data and metrics—and that’s made all the difference in our efforts to make homelessness rare, brief, and non-recurring.