Using Micro-Grants to Fight American Homelessness

Story in: Case Studies

The Barbara and Stephen Miller Foundation didn’t start out with a mission to combat homelessness. “When we opened the foundation in 2008, our thought was to do work on education,” recalls Barbara (“Barb”) Miller. “We had been doing work with a low-income school district in Chicago’s north suburbs when that work started pointing us toward a greater need—we were shocked to learn that the district had programs for 150 homeless students who were receiving before- and after-school care as well as meals. Because the shelters were only open at night beginning at 6:00 p.m. and only from October through May, the schools were basically functioning as homeless shelters. These kids were struggling with issues that almost made their education a secondary concern.”

How could a family foundation hope to make a dent in a problem as daunting and pervasive as homelessness? A chance encounter provided the answer. “Our temple had won an award from United Way for our work with the school system, and I happened to meet someone from Prairie State Legal Services, a legal aid society, who attended the award ceremony,” Barb recalls. “I asked the attorney, ‘How can we help?’ and she said that what she needed most for her work was an emergency fund. She explained that the legal system can only take people so far and that a significant number of her cases could be resolved with just a little financial support—for example, a family member who could provide cash for a one-time, discrete problem.” Barb and Stephen agreed to provide that kind of support through their foundation, making the first grant in late 2008.

As the Millers discovered, these “discrete, one-time problems” had the potential to plunge even stable, working families into crisis, often resulting in homelessness. “Many of our foundation’s grantees are people who are struggling but otherwise doing fine,” Barb explains. “Our typical client is a single mother who has a job, some sort of assistance for housing or subsidized housing, and perhaps receives food stamps. Then something happens—the car breaks, or a child gets sick—then the mom has to miss work for a couple of days, causing her to fall behind on her rent.”

To prevent this downward spiral, the Millers make a one-time grant of less than $1,000 directly to the individual. Because they intervene at the crisis point, they enable recipients to stay in their homes. “If we fix the car or pay the rent, they’re not up against a five-day eviction notice,” Barb says.

The foundation’s work has produced astounding success rates. In the past eight years, the foundation has helped over 600 individuals and achieved lasting impact. Follow-up reports indicate that after one year, over 90 percent of grant recipients were still stable.

So, how did a family foundation accomplish all of this? “We came to Foundation Source with this idea for an emergency fund and asked how to do it,” Barb says. “Foundation Source helped us structure the fund. They set up the application process, gave us the mechanism to grant to individuals, and disbursed the payments.”

With the basic structure and administration in place, the Millers were able to work with community-based partners including legal aid societies, Illinois township governments, and a few social agencies such as Catholic Charities to identify grantees and approve the applications. “I’m the only one running the foundation,” Barb explains, “but we’re able to help a large number of people because we piggyback on the staff of our partners. Why would we try to find and vet the applicants when there are organizations with experts who do this every day?”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Millers intend to take their work to the next level by tackling the recurring, systemic issues behind the one-time crises. “For example, over and over again, we see problems with rental security deposits,” Barb says. “The poor rarely get their deposits back, and the legal process for fighting the landlords is so onerous that no legal aid society has the time to take them on.” The Millers have been talking to housing authorities about rethinking security deposits and with local governments about modifying legislation. They’ve also been structuring their grants to provide both funding for the victims of predatory landlords and for legal aid societies to go after the bad actors. By attacking the problem of homelessness at the micro as well as macro level, the Millers hope that they and other funders can achieve their ultimate goal: putting themselves out of business.