Basic human needs are often defined as “food, shelter and clothing,” and many mistakenly believe someone’s physical appearance or hygiene are an indicator that these needs are being met. However, the shy, kindergartener in your child’s class, or the kind-eyed grandmother who greets you at the grocery store every Wednesday, may silently represent the 50 percent of Lowcountry Food Bank clients with annual incomes less than $10,000 or the 60 percent of individuals who requested help with housing last year and didn’t receive it.
These statistics are just two reported in the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s Hunger and Homeless Survey released in December 2015. Every day, we unknowingly cross paths and trade polite conversation with individuals struggling with hunger and/or facing the threat of homelessness. Too many of our neighbors are forced to choose which basic needs to meet, if in fact, they can meet any at all.
While the statistics in the Hunger and Homeless Survey paint a bleak picture for our children and families, and for those who reside in twenty-one other cities featured, Trident United Way (TUW) and its partners are working differently to address the root causes of homelessness and hunger—poverty, low educational attainment, poor work skills—because the old methods have yet to result in sustainable, widespread change.
At TUW, we believe organizations that have shared, common goals, continuously measure progress against those goals, and make course corrections along the way do affect change. Formal partnerships that do the same can make an even bigger mark.
The Senior Grocery Program, highlighted as an exemplary program in the Hunger and Homeless Survey, is one example of an organization that understands the value of partnerships and outcomes. The Berkeley and Dorchester Prosperity Center partnership is another.
In the Prosperity Center model, co-located partners —Trident United Way, Palmetto Goodwill and Family Services, Inc. — provide the human and financial capital to operate two sites near large rural populations. Together, center partners offer services including benefits registration, financial education classes, GED/WorkKeys preparation and employment assistance. Additionally, centers serve specific populations like veterans, ex-offenders and parents. In coordination, partners use shared tracking systems that ensure effective communication among partners and monitor of client progress. In 2015, 2,247 individuals sought and received 8,627 services to help them achieve greater self-sufficiency.
Another example is the Safety Net Assistance Network (SNAN) hosted by TUW. Composed of over 320 organizations represented by TUW-funded partners, churches, healthcare organizations and others; SNAN focuses on helping families become financially stable. SNAN partners operate using a common framework prioritizing basic needs, because it’s hard to focus on next steps like completing education or finding a job without these needs being met. SNAN partners then focus on assisting individuals and families achieve basic skills, secure income and build savings. Next, the goal is to help individuals gain and sustain assets, like improving credit so they can purchase a car and travel to a job outside their rural, high-unemployment community.
Each SNAN partner plays a different role in the collective framework. A web-based tool called CharityTracker, also funded by TUW, allows SNAN partners to “talk” and share resources and information electronically in real time. Since 2009, SNAN partners have used CharityTracker to serve 48,000 families with needs ranging from finding furniture for someone transitioning from homelessness to providing mortgage assistance to families seeking to keep their home.
Because CharityTracker is web-based, SNAN partners can access it from any location and share documents and forms. The document feature greatly mitigates barriers posed by transportation, because a client does not have to travel to multiple locations to complete forms for multiple services. A mother of three small children can get everything she needs at the Berkeley or Dorchester Prosperity Center and can avoid a day-long expedition from one agency to another to obtain assistance to stay in her home, feed her children or apply for benefits.
Tools like CharityTracker, networks like SNAN, and formal partnerships like those exemplified in the Prosperity Centers can fundamentally change how we—nonprofit, faith and business-communities—work together to create operational efficiencies and effectively manage scarce resources to help our neighbors achieve stability.
Certainly, the persistent problems of homelessness and hunger are complex. And yes, the landscape is sometimes highly fragmented. Until we forge formal partnerships (both traditional and non-traditional) with common agendas and shared measurement systems, real progress will continue to be elusive. But when we do, and when we align ourselves and commit to working collectively, achieving real impact is possible.
We firmly believe our Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester County neighbors deserve the opportunity to access resources that will help them achieve a quality of life and the possibility of upward mobility, not simply survival.
Amanda Lawrence is vice president of Community Impact for the Trident United Way.