Housing Families First made history last week in more ways than one. Our annual gala, this year themed “A Night at the Theatre: A Return to the Jazz Age” saw our donors decked out in flapper dresses and pinstripe suits. But, it wasn’t just the 1920s that we were honoring. As the donations came in, we can now list 2017 as a historic year for our organization—we surpassed our fundraising goal by $7,500, making this our most successful fundraising event to date.
This annual event is vitally important to Housing Families First, who uses the proceeds to fund programs that provide meals and maintenance in the shelter, weekly bus passes, short-term financial subsidies for families in our rapid re-housing program, and more. Of the $55,000 that we raised, $35,000 will go straight to the individuals we serve, making us one of the most efficiently run programs of our kind.
It was so clear to us after our gala that our donors truly care about Richmond families experiencing homelessness. And they turned out in force to make sure that we could continue our mission. Thanks to them, we’ve been able to move more than 250 families out of homelessness and into permanent housing over the last five years. Those are numbers we can all be proud of, together.
And now, we’re poised to do so much more.
Executive Director Beth Vann-Turnbull weighed in on what this year’s Night at the Theatre meant for the organization and for the greater community.
This is your 3rd annual signature event. How did you come up with the theme? What have you learned along the way?
“A Night at the…” was conceptualized three years ago by a creative group of volunteers, staff, board members, and catering executives. It’s a great theme because it allows us to keep a consistent event while giving us the flexibility to try new things each year. The first annual event was A Night at the Ski Lodge, and the last two galas have been A Night at the Theatre. All of them have been so much fun. We have a dedicated committee of volunteers that drives the success of each year’s event, and we’re
always looking for new members. The community is coming to know that “A Night at the…” is Housing Families First’s signature event, but they don’t know exactly what fun twist may be in store next year. Will it be more Mad Men or disco? Stay tuned to find out!
How many families will the funding support?
About 200 children and adults will make our emergency shelter their temporary home this year, at a cost of less than $35 per person, per day. More than 250 people (approximately 80 families)—some coming from our emergency shelter and some from other shelters—will move into a safe, permanent home through our Building Neighbors program. The average amount of financial assistance we provide to move a family out of homelessness and connect them with the tools they need to achieve long-term stability is just $4,473. Mostly importantly, 85 percent of the families we house will not return to homelessness more than a year after our assistance ends.
Our signature event provides us with the all-important unrestricted funds necessary to do what truly needs to be done to get families into safe, permanent housing, regardless of the restrictions you come across when you’re working with grants.
What is your annual budget?
Our FY 2017 annual budget is right at $1 million, and the money goes a long way in helping families get off the street and into stable homes. When compared to the expense of other homeless interventions and crisis services, Housing Families First’s programs are truly a cost-effective way to address family homelessness.
What specifically does the funding help support?
Our signature event provides us with the all-important unrestricted funds necessary to do what truly needs to be done to get families into safe, permanent housing, regardless of the restrictions you come across when you’re working with grants. We’re truly grateful for the diverse sources of public and private grant funding that we receive. But, by their very nature, many grants don’t cover a variety of expenses—ranging from short-term childcare subsidies so parents can begin work, to operational staffing, to shelter insurance, to bus tickets for clients. These items, while not necessarily funded through grant programs, are critical to operating successful, supportive housing programs.
Without the unrestricted funds provided by our signature event, we would end up with one horrible cake or no cake at all.
A nonprofit blog post once likened piecing together grant funding with a group baking a cake – a cake in which one person would purchase all the eggs but none of the flour or butter, another would purchase half the butter and a quarter of the flour and some oil, another would provide lots of chocolate, and no one wanted to cover the cost of the baker’s time. Without the unrestricted funds provided by our signature event, we would end up with one horrible cake or no cake at all. In other words, we couldn’t operate our highly effective housing programs without the flexible funding our donors provide from events like this one.
What kinds of things do families always need that might surprise families who don’t struggle with homelessness?
They’re basic items, but they may not be obvious. Families need weekly and round-trip bus tickets (hint: you can buy them at some Walgreen’s locations); $10 gas cards; new shower curtains and rings; cleaning supplies; small buckets and trash cans; new pillows; towels, sheets, pots and pans. And, with up to 20 children living in our emergency shelter, we can’t get enough paper towels, toilet paper, napkins, and large-size diapers. Donations of these items enable us to successfully help families find stability with a very limited budget.
Many grants don’t cover a variety of expenses—ranging from short-term childcare subsidies so parent can begin work, to operational staffing, to shelter insurance, to bus tickets for clients. These items, while not necessarily funded through grant programs, are critical to operating successful, supportive housing programs.
You used to be Hilliard House. Why the name change?
We changed the name of our organization from Hilliard House to Housing Families First to reflect our
growth and the implementation of our new “Housing First” focus in 2012. Our organization still offers safe, supportive shelter for families. But now, we do much more. Quickly stabilizing families in permanent housing is our top priority. The addition of our Building Neighbors rapid re-housing program enables us to do just that. Since moving to the Housing First approach, Housing Families First serves nearly eight times as many families annually than before. That’s a huge jump.
You’ve been with Housing Families First for a few years. What do you think people don’t know about the organization?
The success of our organization is built on the success of the families we serve. I think that many people would be surprised at how much our families are able to achieve with low wages and minimal assistance, and how much our organization is able to do with our small staff and modest budget. Despite the fact that support services for very low-income families—a significant percentage of whom are employed—can be fragmented, the majority are able to leave homelessness in a really quick turnaround of 30 days, with targeted help from the Housing Families First team and our community partners. That’s the Housing First approach in action, and it works!
Despite the fact that support services for very low-income families—a significant percentage of whom are employed—can be fragmented, the majority are able to leave homelessness in a really quick turnaround of 30 days.
I also think that many people would be surprised by how closely we partner with other agencies to address homelessness across the region. Funding and services for people experiencing homelessness are coordinated on behalf of our region by Homeward (where I am proud to serve on the Board of Directors), and most of the homeless services agencies meet together at least monthly to prioritize services for those in need of housing in Richmond.
What is your biggest barrier to getting the funding you need to support your programs?
Besides the barrier of funding restrictions mentioned earlier, one of the biggest barriers to securing funding is our limited name recognition in the broad community. I’ve heard several people say that we are a great organization but are somewhat of a “well-kept secret.” We deliver amazing results in a very cost-effective manner, and we are proud of what we do. Our philosophy is that the more people who know about us, the more funding to support and expand programs will come our way. That’s why we are redoubling our efforts to get our name out into the community through events like this one, our website, the Friends & Neighbors blog, and social media. If you’re reading this, we bet you would be a good fit to be a Housing Families First supporter. And please, do share with your circle of friends. That’s how change happens.
What do you hope to accomplish this year?
Housing Families First has big goals this year, and while there are aggressive, we can absolutely achieve them with community support. We plan to increase the number of households we move into permanent housing by 20 percent in 2017, while increasing the percentage of households that raise their family income while in our programs. Additionally, now that we’ve surpassed 15 years in operations, we have some significant infrastructure and sustainability improvements to make. Our plan is to raise an additional $200,000 over last year’s revenues to meet these important infrastructure needs.
We plan to increase the number of households we move into permanent housing by 20 percent in 2017.
How can people help?
We can’t successfully carry out our mission without strong community support, and we want to be the most galvanizing organization in Richmond! If you’ve been looking for a way to give back to your community, we can’t think of a better way than this one. We urge you to visit our frequently updated website and sign up for our monthly Friends & Neighbors e-newsletter. Share the newsletter with a friend. Come take a tour. Sign up for your family or your community group to volunteer—just one time or on an ongoing basis. Organize a donation drive at your work, congregation, or in your neighborhood. Or, make a monetary gift— every single dollar matters here at Housing Families First—and encourage any friends you have who can do the same.
We’re a tight-knit group here at Housing Families First, and we would love to welcome you into our family.