Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Creating 'The Big Tent' - Collaboration Key to Ending Homelessness

November 14, 2012

I am not alone in my belief that one of the greatest challenges facing the human race is our struggle with bringing people from different disciplines and perspectives together in a meaningful way to tackle social problems. To solve a problem as complex as family homelessness we must find a way to build integrated knowledge into systems design and review, with new voices that challenge and question the status quo.

Throughout my many years as an advocate for affordable housing and anti-poverty policies I’ve been involved with a wide range of planning approaches– a few which have worked well, most that have been very messy, and a couple that have failed miserably (I don’t have either the time or energy to go into those now, I’m sure many of you reading this post have your own examples.)

Committed to solving the complex problem of homelessness, advocates and meeting planners venture outside of their comfort zones by bravely planning and navigating tough meeting styles such as Open Space Technology to encourage creative thinking and processing. The term “Big Tent”, which is thought to have originated as a political party description, has been finding its way into rooms filled with housing and homeless advocates.  The idea is to build a process that intentionally attracts and unifies people with different ideologies and views around a common issue.

I am happy to report that a recent Washington Families Fund Systems Initiative Strategy Convening succeeded where many fail by building a Big Tent around the issue of family homelessness. The day long gathering in Seattle brought together under one roof – or tarp -  more than 200 diverse people from across the U.S. and the Pacific Northwest who care deeply about the issue of family homelessness; leaders from affordable housing, nonprofits, schools, government and faith communities. For almost 10 hours participants reflected on our collective progress around ending homelessness for families, and most importantly, asked tough questions that will lead to the course adjustments needed to move the Initiative closer to the goal.

Among those who entered the Systems Initiative tent included a newly formed cohort of 10 pastors, imams, rabbis and lay leaders from Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry’s Faith & Family Homelessness Project. A concentrated effort to inspire increased advocacy and care around the issue of family homelessness, the project is funded by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of its priority to prevent and end family homelessness in the Pacific Northwest. Representing the 14 Faith & Family Homelessness congregations who count more than 18,000 Christian, Muslim and Jewish men, women and children as members, their questions and reflections offered new perspectives, encouraged the rethinking of approaches and the kindling of new partnerships and collaborations.    

Reflecting on his experience at the Convening, Rabbi Bruce Kadden from Temple Beth El in Tacoma shared with me, “It was quite impressive to be together with so many people who are passionate about the issue of homelessness and to hear both the challenges and the excitement about addressing this important issue.  As Temple Beth El begins its journey of engaging our members in learning about and advocating about homelessness, the convening helped me better understand how various groups in our community are addressing the issue.” 

Pastor Loran Lichty, New Life Church Renton, offered, “As a leader in the faith community, I was very encouraged by the passion I see from philanthropy, nonprofit, and government.  I especially appreciate the collaboration between the different segments moving toward a common goal.  The research & data is very helpful as we educate our faith community on the face of homelessness.”

A testimony to the very real hope we have in dramatically reducing homelessness, Washington Family Fund Systems Initiative Strategy Convening’s Big Tent approach bucked the trend of messiness and division. The convening offered space for the unification of those dedicated to serving our brothers and sisters in need with those committed to solving the problem.  Faith-based and secular partnerships like those jump-started at the convening help us move closer to realizing the systemic, political, social and cultural changes needed to reduce the numbers of families who struggle with homelessness and poverty.

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