Purpose Built Families CEO Seth Eisenberg Says Prevention Key to Overcoming Veteran Housing Challenges
Purpose Built Families Foundation’s Chairman & CEO Seth Eisenberg talks about ending veteran homelessness.
Seth Eisenberg is Chairman and CEO of Purpose Built Families Foundation, a Miami-based nonprofit that is nationally accredited for homelessness prevention, rapid rehousing, and community housing. Recently, Eisenberg visited Playa del Carmen for a strategic planning meeting and a family celebration: his son’s wedding. The CEO generously spent time with RMN talking about his work for this issue’s interview.
RMN: What stands out from your nearly two decades of experience working with homeless communities in the United States?
EISENBERG: Our homeless neighbors are like everyone else. They come from all backgrounds and walks of life. My experience with homeless youth, homeless veterans, and general homelessness has helped me understand unique aspects of each community, although there is one characteristic that consistently stands out: The person – or family – faced a crisis in their lives and had no one to fall back on for help.
RMN: What kind of crisis are you talking about? There are many who believe drug and alcohol abuse is a key factor in homelessness. Is it?
EISENBERG: Those crises can be about employment, military service, violence, legal, emotional or physical health, or relationships. Often, the crises are no different than circumstances that impact many millions more who don’t become homeless. If drugs and alcohol led people to become homeless, we’d have much more homelessness in America. The difference is that in the face of a crisis, the person or family had no one to fall back on for help.
RMN: I hear you stressing people who become homeless have no one to fall back on for help? Why is that?
EISENBERG: There are many reasons, but typically it’s because before the circumstances that led someone to spiral into homelessness, the person lost relationships that could have made a difference. That’s not the issue typically with multigenerational homelessness, but for those who are falling into homelessness for the first time, I’ve found that about 90 percent experienced the loss of a vital relationship, or relationships, prior to becoming homeless. To me, that means if you want to significantly prevent homelessness, you have to help people strengthen relationships.
RMN: Why do you differentiate between multi-generational and those falling into homelessness for the first time?
EISENBERG: Many who grew up in poverty never had a chance to escape poverty. The developmental assets many of us take for granted often weren’t there, including the opportunities for a healthy childhood, education, job training, and other basic life experiences. If we were going to fix that as a society, we’d have to take on investing significantly in helping lift these communities out of poverty.
RMN: You mentioned that it costs a community less to prevent or end homelessness than it does to have people living on the streets or in shelter. Can you explain that?
EISENBERG: One reason is that people who don’t have a stable roof over their heads or a safe place to call home are often the highest utilizers of publicly funded resources such as emergency rooms, jails, and prisons. Those resources cost taxpayers exponentially more than housing. And housing gives a person a chance to stabilize and give back to a community. It’s nearly impossible for someone without that foundation to contribute, which is generally important to all of us.
A sacred trust
RMN: Your biography says you and your wife founded “Operation Sacred Trust” in South Florida. What is Operation Sacred Trust, and what led you and your wife to create the program?
EISENBERG: Operation Sacred Trust (OST) is a collaboration that exists for the purpose of ending veteran homelessness and preventing suicide. My wife and I had experience serving military families before we founded OST. We were deeply moved by those experiences and wanted to give back. In 2011, we wrote a proposal to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to create a program built on my wife’s expertise in developing supportive housing for our formerly homeless neighbors and my expertise with interpersonal relationship skills training. We knew we could never do enough for those who have sacrificed so much to serve our nation in uniform, but OST reflected our commitment to make sure those in our community who served would never be homeless and that if they were, it would be brief and resolved quickly.
RMN: Have you succeeded?
EISENBERG: Yes and no. Yes, because thousands of veterans in South Florida who were homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness were helped – significantly. We led Miami-Dade County’s efforts to officially declare an end to chronic veteran homelessness several years ago by engaging the most difficult-to-reach homeless veterans and placing hundreds from the streets and shelters into permanent supportive housing. That was a major accomplishment, but there’s much more to do, and we haven’t succeeded in every situation, although we’ve learned from every experience. One of those lessons was the importance of helping veterans access the benefits they’ve earned. In the last 18 months, our team has helped local veterans in south Florida obtain nearly $4 million in new, annual VA benefits — in record time.
Helping people remember their dreams
RMN: What kinds of things have you learned?
EISENBERG: For one, a person who is experiencing homelessness or facing the threat of homelessness must really see a brighter future and be willing to do their very best to create that future. When someone is motivated, we can provide financial resources, legal support, case management, health care navigation, and other services to help them succeed. However, the motivation and hardest work must come from the veterans themselves. Our first goal is to help people remember their dreams and aspirations. Then to help them build a roadmap for a future in which those dreams come true. We do this by giving them intentional steps to reach those goals, beginning with the present. Motivating and inspiring our veterans to believe they can succeed, building trust and rapport, all of that is just as important as finding someone a place to live or providing financial support.
RMN: Why’s that.
EISENBERG: Lots of reasons, but primarily because if someone doesn’t have clear dreams and aspirations, they’re likely to fall back into homelessness. Those we serve must be committed to sustaining housing. We can help of course, but it has to be based on their commitment and hard work.
RMN: How do you receive funding and resources to do what you do?
EISENBERG: Since 2011, our funding has come from a Department of Veteran Affairs Supportive Services for Veteran Families grant. That’s a program known in the U.S. as “SSVF.” There are nearly 300 SSVF programs across the United States, all funded by Congress as public-private partnerships to laser focus on ending veteran homelessness.
RMN: Are these programs all the same?
EISENBERG: All programs have to follow the same rules and ultimately have similar goals, but every program has its own strategy for how to accomplish those goals. Our program is consistently rated among the highest in customer satisfaction. We also serve more people than nearly all other programs. Our approach integrates both reparative and prevention strategies. When we measure by the percentage of clients who leave our program successfully housed, we’re grateful to be able to make those contributions. What’s equally important, is that those people don’t fall back into homelessness.
RMN: Do your funders measure all of that?
EISENBERG: The VA provides annual news releases, although I am unaware of consistent measurables and results. It is essential to know the impact of various approaches long term. For example, if one program has 90 percent of its clients successfully housed but 50 percent return to homelessness within a year, that is an unfortunate result. Our program heavily focuses on lasting success. We would benefit from seeing the VA publish more data on those outcomes to educate the public on taxpayer funds.
Life and death pandemic challenges
RMN: How was your program effected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
EISENBERG: The pandemic had a huge impact on our community and our program. Almost immediately after the pandemic began, we had to urgently get hundreds of veterans off the streets in our community and into hotels, where we had to be responsible 24/7 for their housing, food, and safety. Those were life-and-death challenges, particularly for our older and health-challenged veterans. We had to do all that while all our staff was also dealing with health challenges, school shutdowns, and many other agencies and businesses being shut down, along with everything else. Pretty quickly, we doubled the size of our staff from 20 to 40, which was very, very challenging in those circumstances. We had to organize to work remotely, which made collaborations significantly more difficult. And we had to deal with so many other agencies being closed when we most needed their help, and so did our veterans. That was really difficult. Our agency operated 24/7 throughout the pandemic. We never closed or interrupted services for even a minute. I’m very proud and grateful to our team for doing that. I know we saved many lives.
RMN: What was most difficult during that period?
EISENBERG: First, it was staffing, but then it quickly became the challenge of placing homeless veterans in hotels, particularly as many hotels closed. For months, we had as many as 200 veterans a night spread out in seven or eight motels. Eventually, we were able to consolidate those veterans at several locations. We had staff at every location each day; in addition, we covered the daily expenses, paid the hotel expenses, and provided food for each person. I cannot believe we succeeded, but I am proud we did.
Mental Health America Honorees
RMN: Does your wife work with you at the program?
EISENBERG: My wife works full-time as CEO of Florida’s largest nonprofit supportive housing developer, Carrfour. She’s built thousands of homes for people of low income and prioritizes those homes for our veterans. Her agency is our most valued partner, but my wife herself has never worked for our agency. She’s volunteered many thousands of hours.
RMN: I read that you and your wife are being honored this month by the Mental Health. What can you tell us about that?
EISENBERG: It’s a first for us. We do this work because of our values and commitment to those we serve. We never imagined being recognized personally. We know that we have made contributions to our community, and it’s meaningful to both of us to be honored for those contributions.
A future without homelessness?
RMN: Can you imagine a future in which no one is homeless in America?
EISENBERG: I can imagine a future in which no veteran has to be homeless. That’s going to take investments in prevention so that fewer veterans fall into homelessness. Over the past decade, we’ve reduced veteran homelessness by 60 percent. Communities must prioritize prevention if we truly want to know all our neighbors who have served in uniform have a safe place to call home. Tackling homelessness more broadly takes communities coming together on behalf of their most vulnerable neighbors. When you see Bill Maher talking about that regularly, you’ll know we’re making progress.
RMN: What’s something that can happen today to address those challenges.
EISENBERG: Two things: One is radical transparency. The government spends billions in taxpayer monies to fight homelessness. The commitments made by organizations funded by public money should be public so communities can hold everyone, including our agency, accountable for keeping our promises and delivering on our commitments. Second is evidence-based skills training to empower low-income communities, in particular, to strengthen interpersonal relationships with friends, family, and social support networks. We live in a world of mutual dependency, but you cannot expect people to have skills they never learned. Everyone deserves to have skills for successful relationships. In our field, that will make quite a difference.
Be an advocate
RMN: What can the typical person do to help end homelessness?
Be an advocate. There are enormous state and federal resources available to help end and prevent homelessness in the United States particularly, but it takes advocates to help ensure resources get where they are needed when they are most urgent. Often, people experiencing homelessness don’t have a reliable phone, and very often have no stable address to receive mail. Being an advocate and a witness, maybe even a friend, to someone going through homelessness can be among the most meaningful experiences of your life. You may also help change a life for the better, potentially even save a life.
RMN: How have you enjoyed your time in our Mexican Riviera?
EISENBERG: It’s a beautiful country. Everyone we met was kind and hospitable. The environment was perfect for our leadership to get together to envision the years ahead and develop our strategic plan, but it was even more meaningful to see our son get married. I’ll never forget our time here.
Reprinted with permission of Riviera News.