By Ret Boney
BOSTON — In the late 1980’s, Frank Melville needed only to look around to find a worthy cause for the trust that resulted from his mother’s estate.
At the time, homelessness had reached crisis proportions in the family’s home state of Connecticut, so Melville, his wife Allen, his sister Ruth Berlin and his lifelong friend John Gibb decided to focus the efforts of the trust on the single issue of homelessness, and to address it through housing and supportive services.
The Melville Charitable Trust was established in 1987 with funds from the estate of Dorothy Bigelow Melville, the widow of Ward Melville, who headed the Melville Corp., a retail company that included Thom McCann shoes, Marshalls department stores and the CVS pharmacy chain.
The trust, with assets totaling about $130 million, has granted over $50 million, all aimed at ending homelessness.
The trust began its grantmaking in Connecticut, which still is the only place it invests in actual bricks and mortar for supportive and affordable housing.
“Connecticut is our petri dish,” says Robert Hohler, the trust’s executive director. “If we can make things work in Connecticut, they can work anywhere.”
Soon the trust branched out geographically, determining that policy intervention on a national level would be beneficial, and now makes grants for education, research and other efforts outside Connecticut that support ending homelessness.
“We are helping people understand that there are elegant solutions to ending homelessness, ways to deliver services and housing in a way to help people become independent,” says Hohler.
In April, the trust was recognized by the National Low Income Housing Coalition with its National Housing Leadership Award for efforts to raise national public awareness of homelessness and shape political thought around the issue.
In the current year, grants from the trust total about $9.5 million and include projects such as the development of scattered-site supportive housing for formerly homeless families, support for a campaign for a national housing trust fund that would fund affordable housing, and money for advocacy for homeless people with mental illnesses.
One of the trust’s largest recent efforts is the purchase and renovation of an 1895 building in Hartford called The Lyceum.
The building, which houses tenants such as the Partnership for Strong Communities, will be used to “support and promote programs that encourage affordable housing and inclusive community development, as well as initiatives to end homelessness,” according to the trust.
“It will incite, stimulate and encourage community involvement,” says Hohler. “We’ll accelerate the process and reach a tipping point.”
Currently, the trust is funding campaigns to combat the proposed rollback of Section 8 vouchers, federal vouchers that provide rental assistance that people with very low income can use to rent private apartments.
Through several advocacy groups, the trust is investing about $250,000 to fund public awareness campaigns in key states.
“Section 8 has all the elements of smart development,” says Hohler. “It will be a catastrophe if the program is significantly reduced.”
The next big project for the trust is a developing partnership with several other foundations, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Fannie Mae and the Conrad Hilton Foundation, to aid in ending long-term homelessness.
Hohler characterizes the effort as a funders’ initiative, the goal of which is to raise $100 million in the next year from the philanthropic community to help the Corporation for Supportive Housing and the National Alliance to End Homelessness in their efforts to build 150,000 supportive-housing units throughout the U.S. over the next decade.
“Philanthropy has to be careful not to institutionalize poverty,” says Hohler. “We need to think about what people need not to be poor.”