We work extremely hard every day trying to not only house those who have the least but trying to improve their physical, psychological and economical prospects. The work is tiring, often thankless and in many instances does not offer much fruit for all of the work and effort put in. A former boss of mine once said, “Nobody has found the right recipe for helping low income families reach self sufficiency at a high rate.” I cannot argue with his assessment. In the last five years I viewed multiple programs, concepts and ideas all aimed at improving the situations of families in housing programs and sometimes outside. If a magic bullet existed, every agency would be quick to adopt and try to emulate anything that might increase the odds of helping low income families.
In this vein of trying to find ideals that might help low income families, I came across a lot of talk especially in Scotland about the role of social enterprises or as they commonly say the ‘third sector’ in helping families. Social enterprises are not a new idea and their existence is well established in cities throughout the world. The concept is still intriguing at least in the context of housing companies and public housing authorities’ ability to partner and potentially build some of these innovative programs. Could developing a social enterprise network help a housing authority build jobs and positions that might help low income and homeless individuals and families? Experiences in the UK would show us the answer is yes. In many senses, the social housing industry in the UK is far ahead of its counterparts in the USA on this theme.
A quick explanation of the social enterprise sector and methods of growing a company is helpful. According to the website Social Enterprise Alliance, “Social enterprises are businesses whose primary purpose is the common good. They use the methods and disciplines of business and the power of the marketplace to advance their social, environmental and human justice agendas.” Social enterprises are not government or non-profits but its main mission is to address some public need. The goal is to earn revenue which differs from many public institutions and the common good is the company’s main purpose. That means in many instances the extra money earned is reinvested into jobs or ideals that continue to benefit the public.
What types of business are already operated and helping low income and homeless families? A housing company in England invested in a cupcake company that hires and trains homeless people. The sales are increasing and the business is doing very well. There are examples of city tour companies around Europe offering alternative tours with guides who were or are still homeless. The Aspire Group in England grew its social enterprise wing over the last years. They help young people improve the abilities necessary to advance into their chosen careers. Options range from painting and decorating, business administration and customer service, carpentry, horticulture, construction and engineering. They also operate a woodshop where urban street furniture is created.
Map out Social Enterprises in Your Area
Support: What can a social housing or public housing company do to either support, partner or even grow a social enterprise sector within its company or city? There are several options. First off, make a map of all the social enterprises in your area. This can give you a list of potential contractors to work with. Next, look at who you are doing business with. Does the business work with locals and do they train people? Can they help people without experience gain it? Prioritizing these types of business is a method that can ensure the everyday flow of money supports not only company business but also the prospects of those who have the least.
Partner: If there are no enterprises in your area offering the services needed, partner and support one in growing what you need. This may seem like a large task, but the opportunity of helping a social enterprise grow in an area that will support not only agency function but the community good is a win win. An existing social enterprise might be able to offer a new service or good easier than starting a new one from start. The potential of helping expand existing enterprises is an investment well worth considering. Maybe there is an operation that offers services beneficial to your clients. Can you provide them with office space and technical support? This type of support might be enough to help the partnering company expand and improve.
Start a new one: The last option is to create a new social enterprise in house. This is being done in the UK and usually comes from reserve funds or a mixture of grants and loans. This is not always the perfect answer as a lack of knowledge can be an issue in creating and growing a social enterprise. There are large incubators of social enterprises across the USA and other countries so reaching out to these hubs might be the best first step. Accessing knowledge from existing enterprises might increase the potential of partnerships with companies that share similar interest and ideas. There are already successful social franchises that could be used. This offers the opportunity to build upon a good ideal and learn from leaders that already made mistakes and learned from them. With over 3500 housing authorities in the USA, clustering makes sense. If there is a common need with several housing authorities in an area, they can combine to help grow a certain industry.
There are of course risks involved with doing something new. The risks may be necessary to ensure housing authorities are keeping up with the most innovative and successful ways of helping disadvantaged people. Whether through procurement of services and goods from social enterprises or creating/partnering with enterprises, housing authorities can become a major player in this important industry. The time to act is now. Pick up the phone and call the closest social enterprise hub today!