The nonprofit fundraising arm of Metro’s Homelessness Commission has lost the majority of its board of directors amid legal concerns on its overlap with Metro government, raising questions about the group’s future just three years after it launched.
For now, by Tennessee law, the group known as The Key Alliance lacks the required three board members to be an active 501(c)3 nonprofit. Homelessness advocates and commissioners must now determine how — or whether — to fill its void in a city where an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 people sleep on the streets, at shelters or in cars each night.
The Key Alliance formed in 2009 with a bold mission: “ending homelessness in Nashville.” With a well-connected board of directors, the new nonprofit entity would raise funds from the private sector to complement the efforts of the 22-member Metro Homelessness Commission, a government entity that operates on a $1.4 million budget.
“Homelessness is a community issue,” The Key Alliance’s website reads.
In the beginning, the organization had an eight-person board of directors, and, at least on paper, shared an executive director with the Metro Homelessness Commission. (Clifton Harris was listed on tax forms as Key Alliance director, but he contends he was actually only the director of the homelessness commission).
Now membership has dissipated, and The Key Alliance no longer has an executive. Even before these developments, The Key Alliance’s fundraising prowess was never at the level organizers envisioned. In 2010, the group delivered just $26,000 to assist individuals, according to tax records, with far more dollars covering operational expenses.
Its latest round of board departures — after Metro attorneys questioned whether Metro employees could also work under a nonprofit — came in late July when The Key Alliance’s board chair Barry Gammons and board member Ben Shuster both stepped down. Those moves whittled the board from four to two members. The remainder are both Davidson County elected officials. Its board currently lacks any private-sector representation.
“We’ve run into a wall,” said longtime homeless advocate Howard Gentry, Davidson County’s Criminal Court Clerk and former vice mayor, who is one of The Key Alliance’s two remaining board members. He called the group’s inactivity an “unfortunate situation” but hopes The Key Alliance can be salvaged.
“I just don’t want to see the fundraising arm dissolve,” said Gentry, who also sits on the homelessness commission. “Because without it, there’s no way that I know of that we could actually fund — adequately — an effort to end homelessness.”
Neither Gammons nor Shuster returned The City Paper’s requests for comment. Vice Mayor Diane Neighbors, the other remaining Key Alliance board member, said she hadn’t attended its board meetings in several months and would be of “no help” in discussing the group.
Spurring The Key Alliance board’s depletion, the Metro Department of Law recently advised the homelessness commission against allowing Metro employees to also act as representatives of The Key Alliance. As a nonprofit entity, The Key Alliance should operate independently of the city government, city attorneys say.
“Metro employees are just that — they’re employees of Metro,” Metro attorney Corey Harkey said. “They need to be doing Metro business.”
The Metro Homelessness Commission — which includes several Metro council members, and representatives from the business community, mayor’s office, police department and other governmental entities — is set to consider its future collaboration with The Key Alliance this week. The commission’s executive committee will discuss the matter Aug. 15.
Erik Cole, a former councilman who chairs the homelessness commission, said the “immediate goal” is to identify some additional people to replenish The Key Alliance’s now-defunct board. “In the longer term,” Cole said, the commission would ask various questions: “Does a separate nonprofit really work? Should we be looking at something maybe a little less administrative going forward?”
Cole said the commission would be recommending some potential ways to provide functions similar to what The Key Alliance was charged with — perhaps transitioning to a fund, he said, or tapping existing groups such as The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.
Gentry said he hopes The Key Alliance can be restructured. He said Metro should look at other cities where groups like United Way collaborate with municipalities.
“The funds are important, there’s no question,” Cole said of The Key Alliance, adding that its dollars support the homeless who are living on the streets. “But they haven’t raised as much money as we had hoped.”
In The Key Alliance’s 2010 income tax returns (the most recent available), the group reported revenue of $65,531 from contributions, gifts and grants. Fundraising events for that year produced a net of only $6,150.
Yet the homelessness commission’s 2009-10 annual report declared “we are now positioned” to raise $35 million over the next five years, $20 million which would be from the private sector.
Today, confusion persists over the simple identification of The Key Alliance’s past leadership. Those active in homelessness efforts contend the group’s executive director title went to Clifton Harris, the former homelessness commission director. Backing this up are previous press releases that reference him as The Key Alliance’s director. In The Key Alliance’s 2010 income tax return, Harris is also listed as such. Nevertheless, Harris told The City Paper he only represented the commission.
“I was not the executive director of The Key Alliance,” said Harris, who left the homelessness commission in July to launch a personal luxury vehicle service.
The Key Alliance’s website highlights a handful of fundraising and awareness campaigns. Among these: a “Poker Run,” which was to be held this past Saturday, and an upcoming “Art for Change” event in September, whereby illustrators are encouraged to create art for Nashville’s Adopt-a-Meter program.
Modeled on a program in Denver, Adopt-a-Meter — created in 2010 — allows people to drop spare change into dozens of blue meters that dot downtown, with proceeds going toward rental assistance and to promote a “Housing First” model, which seeks to offer permanent housing. Corporations such as Southwest Airlines have paid to sponsor individual meters.
Last year, Mayor Karl Dean and Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson teamed up for a public service television announcement to raise awareness for The Key Alliance.
“Nashville is a great city, but it would be even greater if we could get our homeless neighbors off the street,” Johnson says in the commercial.
Dean chimes in: “Everybody wants to do something to help, but no one can do it alone.” He then encourages people to join The Key Alliance by visiting its website.
Cole, a former Key Alliance board member, said the alliance has held successful individual fundraising events, but has fallen short in “large-donor campaigns.” He added, “We just haven’t been able to staff it the way you have to staff a fundraising group.”
The impetus for The Key Alliance in the first place was to offer additional financial aid for the initiatives of the homelessness commission, which is financially stretched, having to use funds for a four-member staff and other overhead.
Carolyn Grossley, tapped as the homelessness commission’s interim director to replace Harris, said the department’s primary goals are to provide housing solutions and coordinate with other organizations with those same missions. She mentioned Project Homeless Connect, a one-year event (set for February) that brings services such as medical check-ups and employment assistance to the homeless. She also cited the commission’s SOAR (SSI/SSDI) outreach program, which seeks to deliver the homeless income through the Social Security Administration.
“It’s providing to people who wouldn’t otherwise have an income,” Grossley said.
Cole pointed out the commission he heads isn’t the only entity in town trying to tackle homelessness. Other groups include Room In The Inn, Safe Haven and Matthew 25. “They’re all providing good services,” adding that the commission’s role is to support that existing work and identify gaps in which to deliver assistance.
In the weeks ahead, the commission will also be tasked with hiring a full-time director. Grossley said she would be applying.
On the commission’s government website is a link to Mayor Bill Purcell-era plan to end “chronic homelessness” in Nashville within 10 years, or 2015. It was this document that recommended the establishment of the commission, which held its first meeting seven years ago this month.
The Metro Development Housing Agency’s 2011 point-in-time head count found 1,885 people living in shelters on one particular night, and 360 living outdoors.
The homelessness commission is the type of government board that goes overlooked by most, but not by homeless advocate Steve Reiter, known for his constant presence at virtually all Metro public meetings. He attends each one with a pen and pad.
He gave his opinion of the commission: “Basically, it’s been overpromising and underdelivering for quite some time.”