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Becky Kanis: Champion of change
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Sarah Toce

This article shared 2735 times since Tue Apr 14, 2015
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There are certain people in the world that are placed into situations to thrive, and U.S. Army veteran Becky Kanis is one of them. In 2008, Kanis became the founding board chair of Knights Out, a non-profit group of West Point alumni coming out as LGBT in opposition to the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. She led a team in New York to reduce homelessness by more than half, and the Obama administration named Kanis a "Champion of Change" in 2013.

As the director of 100,000 Homes, Kanis worked for community solutions.

"My job was to launch, start and complete a movement that would result in 100,000 of the most vulnerable people being housed off the streets. It took four years, but we were able to get that done," Kanis said. "We ended up having 186 cities mobilized and enrolled to be part of this effort."

The multifaceted initiative was geared toward local sustainability.

"We did two main things—we trained [representatives from the enrolled cities] to go out and take volunteers out and find the very most vulnerable people, and we worked to help them increase the rate at which they were housing their most vulnerable people," Kanis explained.

The ambitious goal of 100,000 people off the street and into warm homes was a personal mission for Kanis. She was willing to put her limb on the line—literally.

"I actually got a tattoo when the 10,000th person moved in, I got a tattoo missing the last 0 as a statement of my commitment to the goal," Kanis recalled. "And then when the 100,000th person moved in, I went and got the last 0."

Were there any second thoughts?

"Yeah, there was definitely a moment where I was like, 'Hey … I'm going to have this really dumb tattoo to commemorate our failures,'" Kanis said. "Really, though, all kidding aside—there is no failure; the only failure is not to learn."

Putting the issue a bit closer to home, Chicago is in the 2.5 percent Club, which means the city is among the 60 highest-performing communities in the country. Cities in the 2.5 percent Club are housing at least 2.5 percent of their most vulnerable people every month. Both Chicago and suburban Cook County were in that 2.5 percent Club by the time the campaign ended.

The work is not done, though, not even close. There is always another hurdle to overcome when working with an underprivileged segment of the population, a fact Kanis knows too well.

"Reaching 100,000 doesn't mean it's all done. It just means that [the cities] are at least able to house at a decent rate. Now the next thing is that we need to improve even upon that, because that's not going to be enough to get to zero," she said. "There is an effort called Zero: 2016 that my former employer, Community Solutions, is launching."

Zero: 2016 states on its website: "Zero: 2016 is a rigorous follow-on to the 100,000 Homes Campaign designed to help a dedicated group of communities do whatever it takes to end chronic and veteran homelessness in the next two years. The Campaign generated huge momentum in the fight to end homelessness, but while greatly decreased, chronic and veteran homelessness continue to plague our nation's streets. The health effects of these solvable problems remain as lethal as ever. We know what works to end homelessness, and, as a nation, we have a moral imperative to bring the solutions to scale. The time to finish the job is now."

Kanis' connection to veterans' affairs goes back to 1991, when she graduated from West Point. Thirteen years later, she walked away from her post in the U.S. Army when she made the decision to stop hiding.

"I think I had this sense of always having to look over my shoulder. And it was pretty awful in terms of that always—it wasn't about the fear of being fired and being economically disadvantaged so much as it was the fear of being shamed; that I would be discovered that I was gay and that was a bad thing," Kanis remembered. "Everything that I knew in that culture was considered a bad thing. So it was both kind of like an internalized homophobia and layered on top of that was a fear of losing my job. But the main thing was fear of being exposed in a way for something that people thought was bad."

Soon, the White House came calling. Kanis was named a Champion of Change in 2013 after leading an effort that successfully reduced street homelessness in Times Square by two-thirds.

"[That effort] was something that I started up from scratch, too, with Common Ground and the same boss—Rosanne Haggerty," said Kanis. "Times Square at the time had the highest concentration of people living on the streets, and when Rosanne hired me my job was to reduce that by two-thirds in three years."

Kanis would utilize her military background to get the job done.

"We would go to the streets to get what we call 'ground truth.' What is really, really happening? What are their names? What are their experiences? Who needs what housing? People assumed that because they were on the streets if they wanted housing they would go to shelters. And there was no pathway; there was very little movement for them to get from the streets into an apartment of their own. So we had to create that, we had to create that pathway," Kanis recalled. "I look back on that as just an amazing experience in my life to have the opportunity to get to lead an effort like that that has such a change in the landscape."

Five years ago, Kanis relocated to Los Angeles for a change of pace and wound up meeting the love of her life.

"I started dating the week I moved here—the woman that I'm now married to and have a kid with. She oversees Los Angeles' efforts to end street homelessness, so we had that in common," Kanis said.

The L.A. scene is a bit different than New York, and one thing definitely stands out.

"L.A. is different, and there are a lot of people that are on the streets versus in shelters," Kanis said.

While Kanis is not currently working with Community Solutions in L.A., she has her sights set on a new venture.

"My new company [is called] the Billions Institute, which was cofounded with Joe McCannon," Kanis said. "Our vision is to ask the question: How can we solve the world's biggest problems in the next 50 years?"

The Billions Institute operates under three main components: to support organizations in the social sector running audacious moonshots, taking local success to a global scale; building a force of billions who can lead transformative change; and reinventing how social progress actually happens, designing new tools and institutions to accelerate global change.

A self-professed "Funtrepreneur," what does Kanis do to unwind?

"My little eight-month-old kid makes me smile bigger than I could even tell you," Kanis said. "Just being silly with him is the best thing in the world. And we actually go for a lot of hikes together, and get out and get out in nature and do that. And then I think it's just spending quality time with our friends. Everything is fun when your orientation is that you're open to learning in every circumstance; that makes everything in life fun."

Learn more about Becky Kanis and her work at .

This article shared 2735 times since Tue Apr 14, 2015
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