MEET Protip: homeless advocate and social enterprise explorer
When most people hear United Way, the envision the household name, locally operated workplace giving and service organization. Here in Atlanta Protip Biswas is shaking things up at the United Way Regional Commission on Homelessness by exploring the ins and outs of social enterprise. He sat down to tell us about his recent Social Enterprise Colloquium and what he hopes the future of social enterprise will look like in Atlanta.
Tell us about your project.
The Social Enterprise Colloquium was a one day event where we got together nonprofits, for-profits and people interested in creating businesses with a social purpose, and what it takes to have a social enterprise. What are the pitfalls, what are some of the examples in our community, especially with regards to homelessness, what are some social enterprises that are outstanding. Both Goodwill and Salvation Army have thrift stores that are used by almost everyone. But there are many smaller agencies not as well known; Cafe 458 has meals for the homeless and on the weekend you can go for brunch. The brunch profits support the food given to homeless. There are smaller thrift stores. There is First Step, a temporary staffing agency that places homeless people in employment. We wanted others who had ideas or who were interested and just starting businesses to come to the dialogue so we could have a forum with everyone around the table. We were thrilled to have many of the universities represented: Oglethorpe, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Emory. We had the academics and we had the practitioners We had some social enterprises that were not in the homelessness arena like Better World Books. the Bobby Dodd Institute, and the Atlanta Community Food Bank. We also had most (non social enterprise) homeless agencies. This created a very rich cross fertilization of ideas.
How did this project get started?
The United Way works in homelessness and we are very close to many local agencies. We have found that in this resource-tough environment, agencies are looking for additional revenue. It is also hard for homeless people to find a job, especially in a recession. Many agencies are looking to start enterprises that will provide work for the homeless but also provide revenue for the organization. These groups call us when they need help, or have a new idea. We kept getting more and more calls so it seemed appropriate as United Way to pull all these people together. That is what the United Way does, it brings people together. The event came about because many agencies were interested and we hoped the timing was right. So a small thrift store or a nonprofit that has extra space could learn about an extra source of revenue. They can all use more, sustainable revenue.
What challenges did you face putting this project together?
Well the question was asked why United Way Regional Commission on Homelessness, what gives us the right to put this together? Social enterprise is not what we usually what we do. But why not us? If we as the United Way, whose job it it to pull the community together, if we can pull it together around this topic, then why not. If it had been some other organization in the lead then maybe not as many groups would have shown up. its United Way’s reputation that we used in the right way, to motivate the community. It is a niche offering. It was not our usual business but it was a rich interaction for us. I hope that a number of agencies will continue and follow up and explore social enterprise.
What are some of the impacts your project is having on the community?
First, we hope that there will be more exchange and interest about this issue. We hope that this interaction between nonprofits, academics, individuals and governments will continue. We would also like to engage the business community. They are always starting new businesses, we need their expertise. We need investors. Grey Ghost, who invests in small social enterprises, was there. We need more people like them entering this arena. None of our nonprofits have ever reached out to groups like Grey Ghost. Why not have that partnership or exchange?
Second, in the homeless arena, those organizations exploring social enterprise need to be aware of the reality. The event wasn’t just about promoting social enterprise. We had Grassroots Justice, a social enterprise landscape company that went out of business. It was a very balanced presentation. The event was about realizing there are risks in doing this, and asking if you are willing to take on the risks. I hope that a number of smaller enterprises will continue their social enterprise projects in a smarter way and that other organizations will consider social enterprises. Some agencies might not go through with it because it isn’t realistic, but at least we spark the interest and provide the knowledge.
What other types of issues do you see in Atlanta besides homelessness?
Well, I tell people united way works in health, education, income, and homelessness. The reality is when you see someone who is homeless it means that the safety net of education, health, and income has failed. We see the reality: failure in housing, lack of jobs, problems with health that can prevent someone going to a job- like if a child is sick and there is no money for a babysitter.
So if we can take care of all those other issues, we would take care of homelessness. In our work we see the interconnected nature of our community. That is what the social enterprise event was about. Even though not many homeless people will start a business tomorrow, it is as much our job as it is the greater community’s job to provide them work.
Is the United Way looking to expand or continue this project?
We are. We hope that in the community there will be a move to have a larger event. Ours was a half day event. We wanted to do something over one or two days. The Social Enterprise Alliance is seeking to have a presence in Atlanta, i hope it gets started. We need to have an institution that looks after social enterprise. The United Way is interested in pursuing social enterprise. We have approached donors who also have interest. It is all a matter of putting the funding together.
We would like to see a conference in the next year. Whether we are the lead or not is not defined. I know that homelessness won’t be leading the next conference, but it will be part of the dialogue. If necessary the United Way will lead, but at the end of the day I hope that there will be more people working in social enterprise for us to talk about.
So what type of help does United Way need to make this a reality?
Its really partnership and collaboration. We need to bring expertise around the table. We were able to harness university professors for this event. We want student involvement also but that involves a lot of lead time, which we didn’t have. We hope students will be engaged because they can create business plans and strategic plans as part of course work. Couple that with consultants and on-site investors and things can come to fruition. We need everyone to bring expertise and energy to the table.
If we set up a good knowledge base and a good program, the funding will follow. We need donors and sponsors, but mostly we need interested parties creating a dialogue.
What are some of your favorite organizations in Atlanta?
There are lots of homeless agencies doing excellent work. I especially like agencies that step up and innovate. Let me point out Travelers Aid. Travelers Aid provides great reunification programs for us. They helped to reunite 14,000 people in last 7 years. They take people and reconnect them with their love networks- family and friends. They call and find someone on the other end of the line willing to reconnect with a homeless person then send you back to them.
Street to home programs are also interesting. Many homeless agencies are afraid of taking someone directly from the street to a home, without testing or making sure that person is stable. They believe you have to earn your way into housing. Street to home programs are based on a housing first model from New York, you get housing first and case management later. Many agencies in Atlanta are looking at this type of model.
First Step connects homeless people with jobs. They also focus on benefits. Many disabled people are homeless and they are entitled to assistance. Before First Step, there was a 20 percent approval rate and a 2 year wait for someone homeless and disabled to receive benefits, now it is 75 percent approval rate with an average time of 4 months. A person on the street doesn’t have to wait 2 years to move into housing or get health insurance, and that is great.
As a community we are doing better, but we need more focus on ending homeless not managing it. So when you give a sandwich or a coat, it is a great first step. But if that is the only step you take and you see the same person coming back for that sandwich or coat then we are not doing enough. We must move to a continuum where we take people off the streets permanently.
There was a young man that Grady Hospital referred to us from their emergency room. He has been in housing for last 6 months. We discovered that prior to getting into housing he used the emergency room 27 times in a 6 month period, at around $1500 a visit, you can do the math. Now he has visited only once in the past six months. That makes me thrilled, when, despite all the people we cant help, a success story like that happens. That feeds my soul better than anything else in the world. When we get success taking someone out of homelessness- its morally, economically, and in every other way the right thing to do.