11/05/2013 - Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Badly First

By Zach Brown, Executive Director, West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness.

The title of this blog is a quote from one of my heroes, Joel Salatin, co-owner and proprietor (with his son Daniel) of Polyface Farms in Swoope, Virginia. A wonderful speaker and a vociferous advocate for all things sustainable and right in the food and farming world, his passion and insight is very similar to some of the most progressive advocates for change in the world of ending homelessness. And in this quote, he’s not saying “set out to do things badly.” He’s saying “go ahead and try some things without the fear of messing up.” Now, let’s be clear that I am not advocating that we run off half-cocked, trying random things at every turn – plus, we already know many best practices that should drive our strategies. What I am advocating for is a thoughtful venture into the sometimes scary lands of progress that challenge our conventions, linear thought, safety nets, and our fear of failure.

Scared about the upcoming funding picture and what it means for ending homelessness? Yep, me too. Queasy about the very real possibility that low-performing projects might have to be re-allocated to new or better performing projects? Yeah, me too. Feeling trepidation about what coordinated assessment is really going to look like on the ground, and how to get it to where it needs to be? I hear ya. But guess what I am more scared of? Guess what keeps me up at night? Guess what my largest fear of all is? Not changing. More specifically, the shameful epidemic of simply managing homelessness and not committing to ending it. Even more specifically, the ridiculousness of empty beds and people dying on the streets.

The thing with our brand of change, though, is that it would be somewhat excusable for people to stay in the same mindset that they’ve been in for 30+ years if we didn’t have all the resources for successful change that we currently have at our fingertips. Confused about HEARTH and the HUD mindset on funding, housing, and services? Go check out the HUD SNAPs Weekly Focus Articles. Want to inspire your communities to think differently? Go look at OrgCode Consulting, 100,000 Homes, Amy Freeman’s blogs on Huffington Post, or anything from the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Or delve further into And talk to state partners and agencies outside your borders. They’ve done the same things you have, tried other things that you haven’t, and can give you perspective. You might even find out that your issues aren’t as unique as you thought. I sure have.

“Then what?” you may ask. Then, you don’t sit on your hands. You take the plunge. Try out the proven practices. Get rid of one organizational rule that has existed in some arbitrary nebulous state forever and does nothing to end homelessness. Start a community meeting about coordinated assessment and using your housing and services resources better. Study how much it costs your community when people stay on the street compared the costs of housing them. Talk to someone experiencing homelessness and ask them what might not be working in your system. Meet as a community of providers and eliminate one area of duplication. The resources are there, and you have had the energy and the will all along.

The stars do not have to all be in alignment. Every community partner does not have to be at the table to start the conversations. You do not need to wait. Conquer the fears that have kept you from change by being willing to risk doing a few things badly first. Reassess, make more changes, and watch how people come along to perfect things with you. 

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