"The Modern Homelessness Crisis" is fundamentally two problems:
These insights raise an incredibly important question about the role, purpose, and scope of the homeless service sector itself.
Are we - the civic leaders tasked with responding to this challenge - responsible for the broader systems creating housing instability? OR, are we simply responsible for creating the best possible "rehousing system" after these crises occur?
According to systems theorist Daniel Kim:
Mental Models are the beliefs and assumptions we hold about how the world works. We can view these assumptions as “systemic structure generators”
By and large, over the last 40 years, the prevailing mental model for addressing homelessness has been "disaster recovery." This approach is essentially adopted from how we respond to crises like hurricanes, floods, and other natural emergencies.
When emergencies like this happen, we create what are supposed to be temporary resources to help people get back on their feet - night-to-night shelter, food programs, light touch engagement from social workers or volunteers, etc. As the proverbial storm passes, people rebuild, they move on with their lives, and then this emergency infrastructure goes away.
While it might make intuitive sense to structure our response to homelessness like this, after 40 years, this framework is clearly not delivering results. There are two primary reasons for this:
With systems thinking, words - and by extension, the underlying mental models they represent - matter.
When it comes to homelessness, a growing number of leaders have started using a new analogy for conceptualizing the role of the homeless service system. As a top leader in Houston, TX, one of the only major metropolitan areas in the country measurably reducing homelessness, put it:
“We are not here to solve poverty. We aren’t here to fix the affordable housing problem. Think of the homeless system in America as an emergency room for a triaged slice of poverty.”
This is exactly right.
We are poverty's emergency room.
We are not its public health department. We are not its primary care physicians or specialists.
We are on the frontline, triaging emergencies, with the number one goal of rehousing people as quickly as possible, so they can then get the ongoing help they need, should they even need it.
Over many decades, hospitals across the world have developed a fairly consistent process for determining and addressing patient needs:
This probably sounds so obvious it’s hard to imagine an alternative, but consider a different process.
What if we had to go to the hospital, but there was no central check-in location and no emergency room? Instead, what if we had to go department by department, wasting valuable time completing different forms and surveys to see if we’re in the right place.
As a patient this would be extremely frustrating, but it would also be a headache for the hospital. Unless all of those different departments were regularly coordinating and sharing data, they would have no idea who was seeking services and what types of assistance those people needed.
In this inefficient system, we can easily imagine extremely vulnerable people wandering through the halls, trying to get the help they desperately need without actually knowing where to go. In fact, they might get so frustrated that they reject this system all together and refuse to engage in further care.
Sadly, this hypothetical sounds very similar to the way many communities have historically approached homelessness:
Many private sector companies, from hospitals to tech, use what are called "customer journey maps" to help design effective and consistent product and service experiences for their clients.
A customer journey map [is] a visual story of your customers’ interactions with your brand. This exercise helps businesses step into their customer’s shoes and see their business from the customer’s perspective. It allows you to gain insights into common customer pain points and how to improve those.
One of the biggest problems with the way we have localized the response to homelessness in this country is that as a sector / industry / movement, we have failed to create a common understanding of how the parts of a homeless system of care typically fit together.
Worse, we often rebrand or use inconsistent terminology for different programmatic interventions, thus making it even harder for both policymakers AND people experiencing homelessness to understand how the system works.
There are a limited number of building blocks that go into a homeless system of care. They include:
STEPS is intended to show how these building blocks tend to fit together. Importantly, they are undergirded by a second S - Systems. This refers to the principles and policies that tie all of these pieces together:
STEPS in its own right is an extremely powerful tool for helping for helping local communities better organize their local response. For example, it can help:
However, there is an even deeper and more important insight here.
If the building blocks for a homeless system of care are generally the same in every community, then it stands to reason that if you compared all of the various approaches to a given building block, "optimal" approaches would emerge (i.e., best practices).
Thus, STEPS can not only help to coordinate better locally, it also serves as a framework to orient local communities to "north stars" for what is working elsewhere.
If STEPS is the what, AHEAD is the how.
The secret ingredient spurring the communities that are making the most progress reducing homelessness is simple - it's sparking and sustaining momentum.
Momentum looks like having clear, baseline data on the current system, identifying programmatic benchmarks that are more effective than the status quo, rapidly piloting new approaches, measuring the impact, and then repeating the process.
AHEAD is simply a way of visualizing this feedback loop.
The information in "Looking Back" and "Moving Forward" is meant to provide an overview on how to more effectively respond to The Modern Homelessness Crisis. With time, we will be adding more free resources and tools to these pages.
If you're looking for an even deeper dive on all of these issues, our training course is intended to be the "must watch" orientation for civic leaders working to end homelessness. It distills nearly 15 years of hard-earned, on-the-ground experience in two hours to help quickly accelerate progress in your community.Get Instant Access
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