Gates grant worries some social agencies

  • Sun Nov 14th, 2010 10:08pm
  • News

By Sharon Salyer Herald Writer

The Bill &Melinda Gates Foundation is willing to give as much as $7 million in grants over the next six years to help homeless families in Snohomish County.

Like most foundation grants, the Investing in Families money comes with some strings attached: For every $1 provided by the foundation, another $2.50 has to be raised from government and other sources.

“The intent is not to take money away from single (homeless people) in order to reserve matching dollars from the foundation,” said Mary Jane Brell Nujovic, of the Workforce Development Council of Snohomish County. Nujovic heads up the team trying to earn the Gates Foundation money for county nonprofits.

For the first two years of the program, up to $1.3 million will be available from the Gates Foundation. The necessary $3.2 million in matching funds, though, are not yet identified.

Local Investing in Families programs are set to start in July 2011, Nujovic said. The goal is to ensure the first 50 to 100 families find housing quickly, and services are provided to help ensure financial stability and prevent them from becoming homeless again.

Some local advocacy groups wonder where the money will come from to meet the required matching funds.

They also worry that other homeless programs, such as those serving teens, seniors and veterans, will lose money in the Gates-inspired efforts to help homeless families.

“We as a community and the whole Puget Sound area are blessed that the (Gates) foundation is concerned and interested with family homelessness and willing to put a substantial amount of money into family homelessness,” said Bud Alkire, executive director of the Everett Housing Authority.

Yet the Gates money doesn’t deal with homelessness among disabled people, senior citizens, veterans, mentally ill or homeless youth, he said.

“We’re concerned … that this effort is addressing just one part of the homelessness issue,” Alkire said.

Margaret Bruland, executive director of Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County, whose clients include homeless women, said the Gates Foundation gave money to her organization for five years to help house women after they leave its shelter.

“Gates is great,” she said.

But Bruland said she, too, wonders what the effect of the upcoming grants targeting homeless families will be.

“Keeping tabs on grants already is hard enough,” she said. Such funding plans can leave organizations telling staff: “You can only work with women and children. Someone else has to work with singles,” she said.

For example, a federal grant this year provided $91,500 to Cocoon House, which serves homeless teens, and a total of $300,000 to six other social service agencies in Snohomish County. Next year that money is being redirected to pay for legal and mental health services for families, said Lee Trevithick, Cocoon House executive director.

“This seems like an awfully big policy decision being made with a minimum of public awareness and input,” he said.

The Snohomish County Council plays a part in directing where to send some types of money for homeless programs.

“We’ve just started looking into this,” County Councilman Dave Gossett said. “I think the key point for the council is to just get the information so we understand what is being proposed.”

Gates Foundation representatives say they have to focus their grants for specific causes. Helping homeless families is one of their priorities.

“There’s always competition for resources,” said David Bley, director of its Pacific Northwest Initiative. “No matter what we do, somebody will be worried that it will be at the expense of something else.”

The foundation first launched a program to help homeless families in the Puget Sound region in 2001. Its Sound Families grants helped pay for building 177 apartments in Snohomish County, he said.

Even though three out of four families participating in the program were able to find permanent housing, there were still more homeless families at the end of the program than when it was launched, he said.

The Gates Foundation hopes the latest efforts will help stretch available dollars by coordinating with programs funded by local, state and federal dollars, Bley said.

“We could come up with better ways to serve these families without robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com

Gates grants

Contributions to date in Snohomish County by the Bill &Melinda Gates Foundation:

Community grants: $5,075,109 (includes grant to social service groups supporting low income children and families)

Early learning: $508,052

Education: $3,815,989

Family homelessness: $7,346,307

Libraries: $60,615

Total: $16,806,072