Connecting the Dots between Housing and Health in Chicago

Wednesday, July 18, 2018 - 10:33 am
Debbie Reznick

Editor's Note: This is part of our series focusing on the winners of the 2018 Secretary’s Award for Public-Philanthropic Partnerships

When I learned Polk Bros. Foundation and Michael Reese Health Trust would be presented with the 2018 HUD Secretary's Award for Public-Philanthropic Partnerships, I was glad to have an opportunity to share what we’ve learned in our work to connect the dots between housing and health in Chicago – and to also highlight housing's essential role as a social determinant of health.

A Locally-Unprecedented Partnership

Fifteen years ago, Michael Reese initiated and Polk Bros. supported the Chicago Housing for Health Partnership study to better understand how housing – or the lack of it – affects health. The study drew strong connections between improved housing and improved health, and helped set the stage for Chicago’s housing and health sectors to more meaningfully and formally work together. Guided by the study, Polk Bros. and Michael Reese partnered to facilitate the success of our shared supportive housing and healthcare grantees as they navigated a rapidly-changing healthcare environment. Together, we found ways to fund pilot projects that fostered relationships and highlighted shared goals between permanent supportive housing and healthcare providers.  

The conversations we initiated, the stakeholders we convened and the pilot projects we funded all helped lay the groundwork for the Chicago and Cook County Housing for Health Strategic Plan (H2), the locally-unprecedented public-private partnership recognized by this award and supported by Polk Bros., Michael Reese and the Chicago Community Trust. We hope, by sharing what it took to make this happen, we might inspire similar funder-led endeavors, because H2 is making incredible and scalable strides in its goals to create additional housing opportunities for people experiencing homelessness, to share data across the housing and health systems, and to provide cross-sector training and coordination. It is a highly-effective partnership that brings together important stakeholders who might otherwise be isolated from each other – including city, county, state and federal leaders, healthcare systems, housing-focused nonprofits, health-focused nonprofits, and private foundations.

Greater Funder Impact by Collaborating Beyond our Sectors

Our partnership with Michael Reese illustrates how much more impact we can have as funders when we collaborate across sectors. Polk Bros. was deeply engaged in solutions to end homelessness as one of our areas of focus, and Michael Reese had expertise in the healthcare sector and was forward-thinking about the social determinants of health.

Partnering gave us the opportunity to spur innovation. We figured out how our collective resources could best be coordinated and leveraged to create momentum, attract public funding and lead to systemic change.

Through our work together, we remained aligned that sufficient and long-term support would be critical. Both our organizations have long invested in finding solutions to homelessness and opportunities for improving the health of vulnerable people: Polk Bros. for 30 years and Michael Reese for over 20. Through our collaboration, we helped launch – and we and other funders continue to support – the Center for Housing and Health, the lead agency that initiated and fostered the development of the H2 plan.

We know safe and affordable housing is critical for people’s health, their ability to get and keep a job, and their children’s development and success in school. Do the people reached through your grantmaking have access to stable housing? If not, could your organization make faster progress toward its goals by collaborating with other funders on housing?

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