Building Capacity to Fight Today’s Poverty

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  • April 11, 2014

CentroNiaBy Sarah Jackson

Mary’s Center, a D.C. community health center, had always served an urban population. Created in 1988 to provide culturally sensitive prenatal care to young Latinas in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, the small community center grew over the years, becoming a Federally Qualified Health Center in 2005.

But it faced perhaps its biggest challenge in the 2000s, when it began to see large numbers of its patients coming to their health centers from outside of the city.

Some of these families had recently moved to the Maryland suburbs in search of more affordable housing. But suburban patients were also coming to Mary’s Center who had never lived in the city—new immigrants who had settled directly in the suburbs or the newly poor, folks who had recently fell into poverty and didn’t know where else to turn.

Montgomery County was experiencing rapid demographic change. While fewer than one in five county residents were immigrants in 1990, by 2010, according to census data, immigrants made up nearly one-third of the population and almost 40 percent of poor residents. After the recession, poverty in the county grew by two-thirds between 2007 and 2010.

Low-income families in the county were often unable to find organizations that provided the same kinds of support services available to urban residents. Multilingual and multicultural support services, immigrant services, and affordable and quality early childhood education were either limited or not available in areas experiencing rapidly growing need.

To add further strain, existing service providers in the suburban communities were stretched very thin facing the new increased demand.

“There just wasn’t enough money to deal with this upswing in requests for emergency services,” Tim Warner, who works with faith communities in the county executive’s Office of Community Partnerships, told the Washingtonian in 2011. “So we got together and said, ‘What can we do creatively to deal with this?’”

County officials launched the Neighborhood Opportunity Network in 2009, a cross-sector collaboration with an emphasis on cultural competency that aims to ensure residents receive critical services and helps create support networks in high-need suburbs. The county’s struggles reflect a common problem facing suburban communities across the country – lack of capacity.

Living Cities, a partnership of foundations and financial institutions, is one of a growing group of institutions finding creative ways to help suburban communities respond regionally to the growing demand from new populations. Its Integration Initiative aims to determine what’s needed to help communities “move beyond piecemeal approaches” and toward broader change in systems that shape the lives of low-income people. Through this initiative, one thing they quickly learned is that communities often lack not only the infrastructure to fight poverty, but also the ability to even absorb the funding that comes their way. Building capacity in these communities is critical to helping them effectively address growing need.

In the D.C. region, Venture Philanthropy Partners (VPP) recently has had some important success in finding effective ways to invest in and build capacity region-wide.  VPP supports strong service providers that can blend multiple funding streams.  Through its targeted investments, VPP encourages cross-sector, multijurisdictional partnerships, and has helped a number of high-performing nonprofit organizations to expand into suburban areas with limited capacity.

For example, VPP facilitated a key partnership between Mary’s Center and Washington Adventist hospital in Montgomery County; the hospital, in Takoma Park, now sends low-income immigrant patients needing follow-up care to the Mary’s Center that opened in 2008 in nearby Silver Spring.  Along with a $3.3 investment, VPP helped Mary’s Center build strategic business and government relationships that made this and expansion to other new service areas possible. The Center now runs six sites, four in D.C. and two in Maryland. They also operate mobile units that provide free HIV and pregnancy testing, as well as one providing pediatric dental care in Prince George’s County.

Similarly, VPP helped CentroNia, a youth service organization, make the shift from a Latino neighborhood group serving 322 children in D.C,’s Columbia Heights neighborhood, to a regional leader serving bilingual children from multiple ethnic communities. VPP’s investment of $2.4 million over six years helped support the expansion of programs into Takoma Park, MD to serve the growing immigrant community there, and CentroNia’s internal processes to strengthen its board, restructure management, and develop an “outcomes framework” that could manage significant growth.

Elevating regional solutions over neighborhood-by-neighborhood approaches makes sense. And VPP has found effective ways to invest in and expand high-capacity organizations.

As Elizabeth and Alan argue in Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, these are the models metro regions will increasingly need to look toward to meet the needs of their changing populations.

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