Runaway Runaway Shelters: More to the Story – Money Matters & Equity

Safety NetThis is a deeper look at the runaway shelter story I covered (here). You may want to check that out first. That blog explained a situation I was in that shows just how easy it is to end up with service delivery duplication in a metro area. Over a short period, our community had three different groups all attempting to do the same thing – start a runaway shelter for homeless youth in Toledo, Ohio. Here, I get a little deeper, exploring both the funding and inclusivity considerations raised by the story.


This case allows us to see how public funding and private funding can play out in the context of a community like mine. Where are the dollars to get something like a runaway shelter up and running going to come from?


Once the Safety Net Shelter got up and running, the total expenses for the first year of operations came to around $620,000. Most of the expenses are related to staff, as you need a lot of people and oversight to be able to safely house minors. They have complex needs and require counseling and social work. They also need to be fed and housed, which make up a smaller portion of the total budget.


This particular program is nestled within a nonprofit agency that has a total annual operating budget of $40 million. The agency is a full service mental health center, which means it delivers everything from substance abuse treatment for opioid addicts, to workforce development services, to residential recovery housing, to intensive treatment for individuals with severe and persistent mental illnesses, to offering counseling services to anyone in the community who needs them.


About 90% of the first year budget for the Safety Net Shelter came from public funding sources, at the local, state and federal level.  In the first year, the federal and state funds involvement mostly came from the sources that are pushed down to the local communities for decision making, such as local Department of Job and Family Service funding. (Decisions are made at the county level about how to deploy several million dollars from this source. It’s not that there is more funding made available because of this project. Dollars are simply shifted away from other nonprofit recipients.) The County Commissioners and the Mental Health Board also deployed significant capital in short order.  10% came from donations and private philanthropy.


It is worth noting that we have very few private sources in Toledo, Ohio that would be capable of issuing a grant of $600,000. When gifts or grants like that happen, and they do happen – they are few and far between. Raising this money through individual donations would also be a huge effort, and it is unclear if those sources would continue giving from year to year. Also, most people who give smaller individual donations tend to give only to established programs. It would be difficult and time consuming, full-time work to piece together enough $25-$1000 individual donations, small foundation grants ($1,500-$25,000 generally) and major gifts from individuals ($5,000+) to put together a purely private funding budget.


In my time as a foundation program staffer, where I spend a great deal of my time investigating, recommending, monitoring and evaluating start-up grants, I have not seen a nonprofit raise an amount like $600,000 for start-up programming from purely private sources. It can happen occasionally, but typically at huge institutions like the nonprofit hospitals or at “blue chip” nonprofits like the Toledo Museum of Art. Capital campaigns are a bit different and can attract greater private donations – but with those, “the ask” is different. Capital campaigns are one time only kinds of asks. Instead, the runaway shelter needs ongoing, year to year programming costs.



In this case, in this community, public dollars were the only real solution, given the pressing nature of the need, the urgency, the ongoing cost of a program like this and the local realities.


The other factor here is that there was the potential for a federal grant.  Dollars are available at the federal level for many things. But communities don’t just have them handed down to them. They have to get their act together and compete for them. They compete with metros and states across the country. There are winners and losers, so you have to do a solid, professional job on the application, which typically has hundreds of requirements and components. A typical, competitive federal grant will take anywhere from 100 to 200 hours to put together.


For a long time, our community has not done a good job of requesting the kinds of competitive federal grant funds. This is a refrain that that has been repeated by the more astute civic leaders for quite some time. On one hand, it is laudable to be more self-reliant as a community, but on the other, these grants come from tax dollars being paid by Toledoans, so why shouldn’t we try to have them directed here for our most pressing needs?


The Safety Net group made one attempt at obtaining these dollars in 2016, but was unsuccessful. It was too early. Like many of us who give, the federal government wanted to see a track record first. But they tried again. Having a professional staff who knows how to write, win and manage federal grants was a huge help here. In October 2017, it was announced that the agency had been awarded a $600,000 grant over 3 years to help operate the shelter. The award came from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – Administration for Children and Families. This would bring a much-needed $200,000 per year for the next three years to help keep our most vulnerable youth safe in Toledo.


This case illustrates another tension that comes up in conversations about how we provide for the common good.


By and for whom?


There is a powerful movement in philanthropy and in many other sectors around diversity, equity and inclusivity. In general, we want solutions to challenges to be designed and delivered by those who are closest to the issue.


There is great value in having LGBTQ+-identifying leadership engaged in the delivery of a solution here. We can often get stronger insights about how best to serve that target population, because of the invaluable lived experience of that leader or leaders. He or she is sensitized differently. There is an ability to see and observe greater subtleties that can have a powerful effect on impact. Perhaps there is a trans youth who shows up at the shelter – and there is a way to welcome that person that makes it more likely that he or she will decide to trust the staff, to stay and ultimately get more beneficial care?   This leader’s involvement could lead to greater impact – and even greater dignity for those who are served.


But, from the big picture standpoint, what does that mean for how the solution is configured in the context of a community like mine?


Should we make space for these grassroots organizations and help them grow to the point where they one day become another $40 million dollar agency?  Or do we make sure that our $40 million dollar agencies are cultivating a leadership pipeline that is inclusive, so that there is greater representation in leadership and staff of those who are ultimately being served?


The reality is that we need to figure out a way to do a modified version of both.


In this case, the small grassroots groups did not win out in the effort to create a youth runaway shelter. But I am relieved that these important grassroots leaders got engaged in the project. One key LGBTQ+ leader in particular was able to sit at the planning table, provide key insights and stay involved throughout the effort. She continues to advocate strongly for the needs of homeless youth and, in particular, LGBTQ+ youth.


But, it is hard in a community with limited resources to always have the answer be that a new nonprofit should be created by and for the target population. I plan tell other stories throughout this blog that illustrate examples of grassroots groups starting out, growing, and creating fabulous impact  – by and for the people who are served. In this case, because of the nature of the service, the costs, and the requirements of the biggest, most realistic and simplest funding streams to move towards the project, it did not appear to be possible.


So, did our community get to the right decision?


We will continue to grapple with these issues. They are sure to come up again. Please feel free to share your comments below.

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