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Joel John Roberts

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Ending Homelessness Is No Funny Business

Posted: 05/17/11 03:11 PM ET

For decades, the business of addressing homelessness was based on simple, old-fashioned approaches to charity that tugged on our heart strings, softened our compassion or pierced our jadedness through guilt-ridden photos of hungry children.

As a young adult, I learned years ago how charity raised funds the old-fashioned way. The tattered, elderly homeless man sitting in front of a hot, delicious meal displayed in a newspaper ad raised millions. The letter typed with a simple font about a story of a homeless family, and sent directly to mail boxes of people with a history of giving, proved lucrative for thousands of homeless missions.

Today, however, the business of homelessness is drastically changing in cities around this country. With a still struggling economy, and a homeless population that continues to persist after decades of compassionate giving in this country, the mood for charitable approaches to homelessness is changing.

Compassion, although still relevant, is being shoved aside by a new crop of community leaders who see the resolution of homelessness as an economic issue rather than just a social one.

Consider San Diego, Calif., where the United Way of San Diego County, the charity arm of local business, is leading an effort with the city and county to permanently house 25 homeless people who are the most frequent users of public resources -- health care, mental health services, law enforcement, emergency and social services. San Diego discovered that 15 similar users of public resources consumed $1.5 million of medical services within an 18-month span. Their conclusion -- ending homelessness saves money.

When the city of Dallas, Texas, saw the importance of bringing business leaders to the round table of resolving homelessness, they appointed the former CEO of Pizza Hut as the city's Homelessness Czar, in order to provide civic leadership and garner additional support. Today, Homelessness Czar Mike Rawlings is in a runoff election to be the city's next Mayor.

In Los Angeles, Calif., after years of political infighting and unorganized collaborative efforts to design a plan to end homelessness in a region that boasts the largest homeless population in the country, business leaders recently stepped up to take charge. The United Way of Greater Los Angeles, along with the LA Chamber of Commerce, created a Business Leaders Taskforce that created Home For Good, a practical and politically palatable plan to end homelessness in Los Angeles.

Cities across the country are shifting their compassionate energies away from the traditional handout approach to addressing homelessness, to a more corporate, management-by-objectives perspective that shows how an investment into ending homelessness will profit the community.

This new approach to homelessness is blurring the lines between business, charity and politics.

Former San Diego City Council Member Brian Maienschein is now the head of an initiative to end homelessness throughout the county. In Dallas, Homelessness Czar Rawlings could very well become the next city's Mayor.

And last week, the head of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, Elise Buik, was recently appointed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as a commissioner for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a government agency that manages $70 million in annual homeless funding.

After decades of this country's struggle to end American homelessness, a business approach could very well be the tipping point to resolution. Merging business, charity, and politics could certainly be the profitable answer.

 
 
 

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