Temporary Housing and Holistic Support Strengthens Transition for Veterans and their Families

For more than 20 years, Operation Homefront (OH) has led the field in providing a launching pad for veterans transitioning out of the military to achieve self-sufficiency. But when it began shopping around a new, unproven idea to center a holistic array of services around temporary housing for veterans and their families, OH had difficulty finding a funder to provide that crucial seed investment. That’s when a conversation with the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation resulted in a partnership that has demonstrated how a new service model that incorporates personalized financial, educational, employment and family support allows veterans and their families to successfully integrate into their communities.

Holistic Services Grounded in a Home

Founded in 2002, Operation Homefront aids veterans’ families in building strong, stable, and secure foundations so that they can thrive, not simply struggle to get by, in the communities they have worked so hard to protect. Though a veteran may have excelled in the military as part of a team with specific responsibilities, they often need support in transitioning to the next phase of their lives, when roles are not predetermined. OH provides transitional and permanent housing, family support services, and critical financial assistance to prevent the short-term needs of veterans’ families from becoming chronic, long-term struggles.

As part of its commitment to supporting those who have served our country, the Clark Foundation partners with organizations that help veterans improve their health and well-being, strengthen their families, reach their education and employment goals, and empower them to become leaders in their communities. From 2010 to 2017, the Clark Foundation granted a total of $170,000 to OH for general operating expenses and its Transitional Housing Village in Gaithersburg, Maryland, supporting 10 rent-free apartments for ill and injured warriors and their families as they receive treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. 

While living in these apartments during a challenging time in their lives, veterans and their families receive a range of services from OH to strengthen their transition into civilian life, including financial counseling to reduce debt and build savings; assistance with pursuing education or employment; support groups; and briefings about military benefits. They also meet with their caseworkers and financial counselors monthly, and many attend support groups, workshops, benefits briefings, and employment counseling.

Our secret sauce is having caseworkers who are trained and experienced in social work, in financial issues in the military space, and they would be assigned to each individual family to create their own program.

Margi Kirst
Chief Revenue Officer, Operation Homefront 

Finding Support for an Innovative Approach to Veterans’ Homecoming

In 2017, OH staff told Mike Monroe, the Clark Foundation’s Director of Veterans’ Initiatives, that the organization planned to reduce its Transitional Housing Village from 10 to 6 apartments due to lack of funding. This news triggered a broader conversation about OH’s long-term vision during which OH proposed a novel idea: Expanding its wraparound service model by purchasing homes in which transitioning veterans and their families could live rent-free for two to three years, with the idea that families would save money to purchase their own home and then settle in that community. 

While living in these homes, the families would work with a case manager and participate in various counseling, education, and support groups aimed at fostering eventual self-sufficiency. OH envisioned that after two to three years, these families would reduce their debt, increase their savings and integrate into a community where they had been working and attending school. The goal for the program was that these families would be secure and stable enough to purchase a home and settle in that community. Unlike the Transitional Housing Villages, which are specifically designed to support veterans receiving medical care and their families, this program would be open to all personnel leaving the military with families.

For at least 24 months, OH had been unable to find the right funder to take a chance at bringing its vision to life. But the Clark Foundation saw just the kind of investment it was looking to make – helping scale an innovative strategy focused on meeting the specific needs of transitioning military families to enable them to achieve their long-term goals. 

“The housing is a critical foundation. But our secret sauce is having caseworkers who are trained and experienced in social work, in financial issues in the military space, and they would be assigned to each individual family to create their own program,” said Margi Kirst, OH Chief Revenue Officer. “The goal would be to get them in a position to buy a similar home in a similar affordable community. And Mike said, ‘I love it.’” 

Monroe said he was drawn to the idea because of the individualized approach to help each family that enters the program successfully integrate into their community. “I’m not as focused on the numbers of people served. Deep and impactful to me is important,” Monroe said. “Families are not stuck there for 10 years. They’re there, they move on to a community and they’re ready to thrive some more. And then you’ve got the next one coming in and then the next one. I thought that was in line with the Foundation’s focus on opening opportunities for people and trying new approaches to make an impact.” 

OH’s strong leadership, vision and expertise was another factor that convinced Monroe of their ability to succeed in this new model of service delivery. “From what I’ve heard about Mr. Clark, investing in people and leadership is always a key when we’re deciding what projects to support. All the people I met at Operation Homefront were really strong leaders. When I visited their office, everyone was genuinely excited about being there, what they were doing, how they were helping people,” Monroe said.

Building a Foundation for Veterans and their Families to Thrive

In 2018, the Clark Foundation made a two-year grant of $4.2 million to OH to help expand the apartments from 6 to 10 units at 3 Transitional Housing Village locations and to create the new Transitional Homes for Veterans program. OH requested this amount – at the time, 10% of the organization’s budget – because it wanted to buy five to eight homes to start, as well as adequately staff the new program. OH believed this new program had tremendous potential to eventually expand into a number of communities because it could be replicated in any area with a high veteran population. The Transitional Homes for Veterans program makes temporary homes for veterans the basis for wraparound services to ensure that when families end their time in OH houses, they have savings, personal finance know-how, are integrated into a community, and are on fulfilling and well-compensated career paths. Every family has a caseworker to help them access military and government benefits, and all participants set aside a designated amount each month for savings.

Veterans and spouses receive financial and employment counseling and classes on obtaining a mortgage, car loans, emergency nest eggs, budgeting and reducing debt. “We always say, educate, educate, educate. Because if we can educate the families, they can educate their children. And it just keeps on going for generations to come,” said Gracie Broll, OH Vice President of Transitional and Permanent Housing. 

The Clark Foundation encouraged OH to learn from challenges along the way and to be honest with the Foundation when it needed to adjust timelines or projections. “The funding allowed Operation Homefront to build these homes and the program, and in building them, they learned a lot. We expect things to get bumpy, especially if it’s something new. But as long as they are collecting data and their decisions are informed by the results, I’ll say, ‘I trust in your leadership and your experience so give it a whirl,’” Monroe said.

In keeping with the Clark Foundation’s trust-based approach, the Foundation did not insist on grant reporting that would detract from implementation. “So often you get grants and you probably spend more money reporting against metrics that may or may not be the right ones at the time. Clark never does that,” Kirst said. “They broke the mold in the best ways: Invest in a great idea. Allow us to figure it out. Share the learnings, leverage their name to encourage others to support military families. Forge a really close friendship and partnership. And just be very open and really think about what matters.”

As this was an entirely new model, and knowing the importance of engaging other funders, Clark worked closely with OH to develop assessment and evaluation tools to measure the program’s impact. “Mike [Monroe] challenges us,” Broll said. “I always loved the job because I knew we were changing lives, but then when you actually see the numbers it’s mind-blowing. The Clark Foundation really changed a lot of families’ lives. I’ll say it’s been the biggest blessing we could ask for.”

Stability for Operation Homefront and the Veterans it Serves

The Clark Foundation has allocated a total of $15.45 million to OH since 2018. This support seeded what has become 47 houses funded to date with a total of 45 families having been served as of 2023. Families have graduated significantly, reducing their debt, with a combined total of over $1.8 million in housing costs saved and have purchased permanent homes in the same or nearby communities. By 2028, the organization predicts it will have nearly 50 homes around the country. 

“Because of that investment in 2018 our transitional housing and permanent housing programs are the largest, most impactful in the military space. And Clark was the turbocharge behind that,” Kirst said. OH leveraged the Clark Foundation’s initial grant to obtain an additional $34 million in support, including funding from Pillsbury, JPMorgan Chase and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. Because the Foundation’s investment catalyzed other funding, OH developed the Transitional Housing – Apartments program for single veterans, including single parents, with the same model of housing as a foundation for an array of long-term services and programs. “We have the model and we have the Clark Foundation as our reference. So we have credibility. The Clark Foundation helped us break the mold of our scalable housing programs.”