Michelle Brophy: System Change Champion

What kind of person does it take to bring together nonprofits, funders, government and legislators to focus resources and time on a solution to chronic homelessness?

What kind of person does it take to bring together nonprofits, funders, government and legislators to focus resources and time on a solution to chronic homelessness?

Michelle Brophy is that kind of person, and you might say that she has her eyes on the prize. The prize being bringing supportive housing – the concept of permanently housing chronically homeless people while wrapping around supportive service – to Rhode Island with the audacious goal of ending homelessness for the state’s 600 chronically homeless men and women.

Eyes on the prize requires:

  • Focus on mission – systems change over institution building
  • Patience
  • Educating others through many avenues
  • Relationship and network building
  • Using resources and managing outside of the box
  • And lack of ego

Michelle is the kind of leader who exemplifies the way many nonprofit leaders will be working in the very near future: working across organizational boundaries and building the big tent to get things done. This is especially critical at the level of community impact and change in social conditions.

Relationship Building – Laying the Groundwork

Currently, Michelle is the New England program director for the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH), headquartered in New York City. Before joining CSH, Michelle worked at Rhode Island Housing where she built relationships with people that would serve her well in the years to come. Michelle joined CSH when it opened its office in Rhode Island in 2003 and was charged with introducing the concept of supportive housing for the chronically homeless to Rhode Island – and getting it up and running.

A Friend in the Beginning

The seed money furnished by the Melville Charitable Trust to help bring CSH to Rhode Island was going to run out. The declining nature of this grant reinforced Michelle’s vision of changing systems, not building a local institution.

In 2002, Noreen Shawcross, then director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless (RICH), heard about supportive housing at a conference and also felt it would be a good idea to introduce to Rhode Island. This proved fortuitous, as Noreen became an important ally for Michelle.

At first, Michelle extended some of the funds as loans and grants to homeless and community development organizations as a way of getting to know organizations and introduce them to the concept of supportive housing. She also gave the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless a $30,000 grant to develop a strategy for supportive housing.

This enabled the state’s two early supportive housing proponents to work closely together through an already established network of providers. Michelle could have retained this funding and conducted a more traditional feasibility study or invited stakeholders to sit through a strategic plan. However, she wisely embedded the funds in one organization with both an existing champion (Noreen) and a mission-match (ending homelessness) that also had the capacity to take on and sustain the work.

Sharing the money also extended her reach to Noreen’s network of providers, not all of whom were on board at the beginning. Shelter providers often cannot conceive of the chronically homeless going straight into permanent housing. However the research is showing that it works.

An Institutional Partner

CSH raised additional funds and continued to provide funding to RICH for 5 years. In 2007, RICH’s new executive director, Jim Ryscek, matched the $30,000 grant in order to bring in an associate director for RICH with a specialty in strategic communications. Both Jim and Michelle knew of Karen Jeffreys through her prior work in the domestic violence field and knew she could help put the issue of homelessness on the map. Michelle supported her salary on the condition that Karen also work to communicate about the effectiveness of and need for the supportive housing model in Rhode Island.

Increasing Reach and Harnessing Expertise

This position was one of several senior positions that the affordable housing groups in Rhode Island would go on to “share.” The strategic relationship Michelle developed with RICH enabled CSH to have a major partner for its mission and goals. RICH knew that beyond communications, advocacy was another key component for furthering supportive housing. So RICH began “buying” the time of the director of Housing Action Coalition, Brenda Clement, to assist with the advocacy related to supportive housing.

Michelle, Jim, Karen and Brenda also worked closely with the state’s CDC coalition – the Housing Network – and its director Chris Hannifan, knowing that many of the supportive housing units would be developed and/or managed by the CDCs. What is unique is that Michelle has a nose for people like herself who are natural networkers.

By bringing Karen and Brenda into the mix – two people with extensive and somewhat different networks – Michelle was able to again expand the reach of her campaign for supportive housing. She was able to form a team of equally well-regarded people across several organizations to not only collaborate, but to formally share staff expertise as needed to get the work done. Her networking skill forged the connections needed to build this team.

Funders Help

After several years of “softening the ground” through education and outreach, The United Way Rhode Island became a major partner in the supportive housing work. Michelle cites the importance of being persistent with funders and community processes. The United Way knew it wanted to focus on affordable housing, but at first groups were coming up with more individual ways to use their funding (fund a particular shelter or more money for particular coalitions).

Michelle and a few others kept raising up systems change and community impact as the key goals they should all consider as the use of the funds. In the end, bringing up the “mission” over and over again won the day. The United Way gave $225,000 for two years for a total of $450,000, and asked the state to match this so that a service team could be created to serve 50 homeless individuals in supportive housing for the first pilot program, called Housing First.

The Pilot Program

Recommendations

Michelle recommends the following for building strategic alliances for large scale systems change:

  • Lay groundwork by building relationships with various stakeholders (see case study of an environmentalist and her similar strategies).
  • Build strong bridges among the stakeholders.
  • Leverage funds and staff resources in unique ways and keep the money focused on strategies for system change versus institution building. (Michelle said more than once that while she could use an assistant, she is still able to make her own appointments or call the caterer herself.)
  • Give credit to others.
  • Do a pilot test to prove theories and assumptions before working on permanent funding sources.
  • Keep your eyes on the prize: remain focused on the higher stakes system changes that will make the exponential difference for constituents – even while taking incremental steps to get there.

The pilot was a success. It showed, among other things, that it cost $9,000 less per person to house them permanently than to have the same individual cycling through shelter and/or prison. The United Way continued its support, but requested a logic model for the next 10 years of work.

CSH and RICH were by now full strategic partners in the work and they brought in the Housing Network and the Housing Action Coalition to do a 10-year logic model. This model demonstrated the education and communications, advocacy and public policy, and implementation strategies in 3 distinct logic models.

Shared Work

What was unique about the logic model is that the “inputs” – or resources required – showed shared senior staff from each of the groups working on the strategies and outcomes. This was a formalization of the working relationships described above. RICH holds more of the strategic communications work (and also is the lead agency for grants). Housing Action Coalition and Housing Network are geared to advocacy. And Michelle now spends her time bringing together and educating state department director and state policy-makers.

All of these groups recently co-located which makes shared work efforts like these more doable.

Some of the results of focusing on systems change over institution building:

  • Supportive housing is a key strategy for ending homelessness of the affordable housing community.
  • The state’s coalition for the homeless gained capacity by having a key communications position partially underwritten by the local CSH.
  • The coalitions working together were able to keep funding focused on a system change oriented project so that it was not cannibalized by small stakes status quo projects – with Michelle setting the example.
  • The state’s 3 key funders on the issue of affordable housing have increased their investment in supportive housing and the groups collaborating on it.

Without Ego

Michelle worked behind the scenes homeless shelters, policy-makers, coalition leaders and more. Much of it was indirect work, like helping a shelter for the homeless build a strategic plan that would enable it to also be a CDC and adopt a strategy for supportive housing. Michelle often says that it is important to do the work “and give the credit to others.”

Slowly, but intentionally, Michelle has woven a strong horizontal network. She has done this through small supports, attending meetings and focusing people on supportive housing. She has extended what funding she had to give. She has recognized others with talent and networks that extended beyond her own, and developed partnerships to leverage them as pieces of an ever-building strategy. Michelle has been a major force behind building a network of people and groups working on the issue of supportive housing to a level that many will not recognize where it began or who was central to the accomplishment of its adoption.

At the end of the day, all this work can go for naught if government does not take some responsibility with a state rental assistance program funded through a permanent source. Rhode Island is in deep economic trouble. Still, affordable housing is a key driver – like education – for the state’s future economic stability. As part of the affordable housing continum, the state, like others, needs an effective and proven program like supportive housing, especially where there are federal subsidies available.

Michelle and her colleagues are on the case.

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