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In a sentence: Philanthropy addressing homelessness and a lack of affordable housing is tiny in comparison to public funding, but charitable giving can fill some gaps and has the potential to support real change.

What’s going on

Homelessness and a lack of affordable housing are pressing and often overwhelming issues across the United States. Philanthropy has invested heavily in evidence-based solutions including permanent supportive housing and housing-first models, but hasn’t always made more structural connections—for example, between homelessness and a dearth of affordable housing, extreme economic inequality, and systemic racism. That might be changing.

Most of the philanthropic dollars in this area are going to housing development, followed by homeless services, shelters, supportive housing and elder housing, as we reported in the State of American Philanthropy. Habitat for Humanity, a top recipient of philanthropic giving in this area, received more than $100 million in grants from 2014 to 2018, and experienced only a small dip in funding amid the pandemic.

But it’s important to know that while philanthropy has been trying to address homelessness and the lack of affordable housing for more than a century, philanthropic giving in this area is low compared to government funding for public and subsidized housing, and the larger safety net that helps to keep Americans housed, from Medicaid to unemployment insurance.

Most homeless shelters are funded by federal grants, with philanthropy filling the gaps. In addition to making grants for emergency services like food and shelter, philanthropists in this area engage in strategies including lending, impact investing, funding advocacy, narrative change, and organizing coalitions. In recent years, funders have increasingly supported grassroots efforts to change systems and address these huge and pressing issues at the root.

By the numbers 

  • On a given night in 2020, 580,466 people in the United States were experiencing homelessness.
  • Grants for programs addressing housing and homelessness in the United States totaled $2.18 billion in 2018. Compare that to $6.75 billion for K-12 education that year, or $939 million for music.

Key funders

Grantmaking related to affordable housing and homelessness is concentrated among about 50 foundations. The Ford and Kresge foundations and the Lilly Endowment stand out as big givers in this field. The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation focuses its work to end homelessness in Los Angeles, exemplifying a common funder approach of focusing giving for housing and homelessness on their home regions. Some smaller foundations are also giving big—especially in relation to their size—for example, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and the Melville Charitable Trust, which has been one of the nation’s most prominent advocates of a housing-first approach.

Corporate philanthropy is heavily involved in funding for housing development—especially banks, which are obligated in part by the Community Reinvestment Act.

Community foundations give substantially to address housing and homelessness in their regions, with some notable work being done in the Bay Area by the San Francisco Foundation and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Major donors addressing housing and homelessness include Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Marc and Lynne Benioff, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, and Charles and Helen Schwab. Notably absent in this field? Funders who have made their fortunes in real estate. The Bay Area-based Sobrato Family Foundation is one of only a few grantmakers with real-estate wealth who are giving to address housing and homelessness.

New and notable 

Food for thought

“[Funding for housing] is not a donor-driven business; it is highly dependent on federal, state and local government.” — a fundraising professional in a survey conducted by IP in 2020

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