Service providers for certain organizations are facing an impossible choice: provide services to persons that are most in need of their services or retain long-term funding from their financial partners.
Groups that serve high-risk populations tend to be the most underfunded service providers in the country. The reason can be traced to the dollars they receive. Their target audience for these services often have mental health issues, substance abuse history, multiple run-ins with the criminal justice system, housing issues, employment problems, and education deficiencies that make them high risk for success. These issues—housing stability, employment stability and enhancement, education and skills training–are often not only related to participants’ past problems, they are also barriers to the stable environments and financial success that is necessary to be successful according to donor requirements.
For example, United Way’s Local 2-1-1 is a nationwide service designed to connect local service providers with people that need assistance. The promise of the United Way’s 2-1-1 program sounds like it fills the gap for high risk participants. Their website claims:
You are not alone. Everyday thousands of Americans turn to 2-1-1 for information and support – whether financial, domestic, health, or disaster-related. 2-1-1 is a free confidential referral and information helpline and website that connects people from all communities and of all ages to the essential health and human services they need., 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
But drilling deeper, one realizes that 2-1-1 actually doesn’t help high-risk populations. That’s because many of these organizations that depend on funding through the United Way have to report outcomes based performance data for how they used their United Way funding. These outcomes, particularly in the areas of creating access for enhancing employment opportunities, educational advancement, and improving housing environments operate to exclude high risk participants at the outset.
As a result, organizations are actually punished for attempting to be innovative and address hard problems. Assessments that do not leave room for mistakes, poor selections, and poor outcomes, do not allow organizations the flexibility to innovate and apply creative solutions to difficult problems.
Organizations reporting success data want to ensure that their numbers demonstrate good stewardship of resources and effective programmatic plans. One way to ensure that resources are being expended wisely is to demonstrate that the organization is able to accomplish what it set out to accomplish. Reporting that an educational advancement organization was able to produce a 100% completion rate for GED participants suggests that the organization is using its funds efficiently. Thus, every participant that reduces that number of successful participants risks that the organization may not grade as well on the grant-making group’s success scale, and thereby risks the long-term existence of the organization.
When considering that most non-profits are already under-funded, its no surprise the competitive market for grant dollars that ensues. While organizations may have good intentions to serve at-risk populations, the prospect of losing funding (and therefore losing jobs that depend on the funding) lead organizations to only accept those participants that are the most-likely to succeed. And to the extent that organizations do accept at risk participants, they only do so when the risk involved is one which can be mitigated by throwing higher-than-normal resources at the problem, so that individuals are nearly destined to succeed. The slots available for these higher-resource spots is very limited.
I spoke with a United Way provider recently that deals with at-risk populations in the employment and housing sector, and this director described the scenario as heart breaking. “I can’t tell you how many times we have called 2-1-1 on the hope that we can access one of the many resources available in our community, only to be told ‘none are available.’ That is striking, given the number of organizations whose purpose is to facilitate employment in our community.”
When we consider the number of persons that will be released from prison in the coming years thanks to new federal sentencing guidelines relating to drug incarcerations, and the current policies enforced in public housing projects and other forms of subsidized housing relief programs, this problem of serving at-risk individuals is only beginning to unfold. Homeless persons, the underemployed, those with mental health issues, and prison populations are just some of the persons that have difficulty reaching resources that are supposedly available in their communities.
Its time for our community service providers to take more seriously the level of support to at-risk persons and whether their funding actually blocks needed resources in the community.
Marc Roark is a Professor of Law at Savannah Law School and writes about the interactions of property, criminal law and poverty.