Tackling Systemic Homelessness Together

With your help, we have granted $642,450 to community development organizations through Fund for the Triangle since FY 2013-2014

Lack of affordable housing, financial insecurity, and systemic unemployment are intersecting crises of global proportions. While Chapel Hill and Durham’s dearth of affordable housing is typical of most U.S. cities, Community Empowerment Fund’s (CEF) approach to addressing homelessness and poverty is unique. CEF is a student-powered nonprofit organization that enables and sustains transitions out of homelessness and poverty. Their mission, to cultivate opportunities, assets, and communities that support the alleviation of homelessness and poverty for members (individuals experiencing or at-risk of experiencing homelessness in Orange and Durham Counties) is changing lives in the region.

Started as an undergraduate organization at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), CEF very quickly grew into an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit to meet increased demands. The students – known within CEF as volunteers and advocates – have built numerous community relationships, engaging in broad-based partnerships due to the cross-sectoral nature of the work. What makes CEF unique is their relationship-based support in delivering financial services that achieve equity.

“We’re focused on long-term relationships. Since 2009 we have really grown our programs alongside our long-term members,” said Co-Director Maggie West, who has been with the organization since it was a UNC student group. “As our members get to different stages in their lives we’re working with them in their new struggles and opportunities to keep walking alongside them in their long-term goals.”

CEF’s Homebuyer Savings Program is an example of their long-term approach. Since 2010, CEF has had a savings program that matches members’ goals at 10%. The majority of people in the program start saving when they are living in shelters. In the first year of the program, CEF had ten pilot participants and now all ten of those people have purchased their first homes.

In order to sustain transitions out of homelessness, CEF combines financial services and holistic, one-on-one coaching. Advocates at CEF do not just sit down and explain how to read a credit report. Instead, advocates and volunteers collaborate with the same people for years, working together to see the long-range progression from severe and acute instability to financial stability. The relationship-based nature of the work is evident in the community credibility CEF has built. “Almost 50% of our new members hear about CEF from word of mouth. The work we do is so intimate, it’s really helpful to have that immediate credibility,” describes West.

CEF prides itself on being extremely user-friendly and accessible. Grants from Triangle Community Foundation helped CEF invest in the development of a customized database to build capacity and increase usability. West laughs slightly when describing the database, “It sounds boring, but because of the nature of our work, it is very exciting. The database is based on a member’s individual circumstances and allows advocates to find employment and credit resources that the member might be eligible for. The process between member and advocate is now more effective.”

The ripple effect of a user-friendly database has resulted in unprecedented growth in service capacity. CEF went from serving about 500 members annually to serving over 1,000 members each year. The same database tool allows advocates to track impact and outcomes and makes data collection more consistent. It is evident that the only way to sustain growth is to have the appropriate infrastructure.

CEF is committed to basing their advocacy in community. While generational financial insecurity and systemic homelessness are “complex, wicked problems,” the volunteers at CEF work tirelessly to tackle these issues in our own community. Becoming an advocate with CEF is a big commitment, but West wants people to know there are many ways to engage with the organization and their work. In addition to volunteering, you can also attend community choirs, quilt-making circles, and writing groups that are all designed to get people talking and sharing.

“All the people in our community have different interests and gifts, and we are open and flexible to ways people want to engage with us. There is an open-ended invitation with CEF to bring your creative self,” she said. “It’s hard work, but we also need to smile.”

Advocacy often involves difficult, emotionally taxing issues, but it is important to take a break, create joyous memories together, and connect with each other. Community Empowerment Fund is doing tough necessary work for Chapel Hill and Durham, and they are also making time to sing with each other along the way.

-Written by Rosemary Stump