USICH Blog

08/20/2012 - Solution-Focused Thinking Across the Entire Service Delivery System – Making the Vision a Reality, Part 1 of 2

I have the great fortune of visiting with communities throughout North America that are working on ending homelessness, as well as providing advice to service providers and governments on other continents. It is a pleasure to share 12 insights and commentary in this guest blog on tangible steps being taken that move from the declaration of wanting to end homelessness to sustainable, concrete action that demonstrates results.

1. What you say and what you do are two different things.

Communities tell me they have a 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness. Great. Now what? The declaration to end homelessness is only as good as the training that goes into professionalizing service delivery (ensuring service providers know how to end homelessness); only as good as the resolve to take on systems that create homelessness; only as good as the unwavering commitment to see the mission through – and realizing that a commitment to end homelessness is different than just wanting to end homelessness.

When I engage in planning exercises with communities – whether creating or amending 10 Year Plans – one of the first things I emphasize is that doing the same things as before and just calling it something else will not end homelessness in their community. Tough decisions will be made. Some people and organizations may have their feelings hurt.

We cannot mistake passion for performance. We cannot mistake a big heart as being equivalent to an analytical, solution-focused mind. We cannot mistake a plan to end homelessness as being the same thing as actions that end homelessness.

And you have to get onto the business of doing. If execution is the discipline of getting things done, then I can surely proclaim there is no shortage of plans that suffer from an absence of doing anything new or different from before. Homelessness has never been ended in a committee or on the pages of a Plan, without critical action.

2. Invest in change and spend on impact.

Funding must be used competitively if we truly want to invest in system change that gets results. It is often true that the same organizations will have received funding for several years, decades or generations. The question we have to ask is whether that has been a prudent use of funds: if the same organizations have received funding for eons and homelessness remains the same or gotten worse it may be time to invest in other entities.

And indeed, organizations must brace for reduced funding. There are no guarantees in government funding. The mission to end homelessness remains critically important, but regional, national and international economics all influence what resources can be available.

I urge communities to think first about the strategic areas that they want to invest in. This usually amounts to: Housing; Connecting People to Long-term Supports; Prevention; and, Ancillary Services. Within each of these we can identify “Sectors of Service”. For example, within Housing we may have Scattered Site Assertive Community Treatment, Scattered Site Intensive Case Management, Congregate Permanent Supportive Housing and Rapid Re-Housing; within Connecting People to Long-term Supports we may have things like Shelters, Street Outreach, Interim Housing and Employment Programs.

For each of these “Sectors of Service” we must identify the problem we want the sector to solve, the service interventions we are willing to fund for the sectors, the intended outputs of the investment and the intended outcomes for the investment. Communities that do this find that streamlining  the service delivery system becomes much easier.

3. Embrace the “freak out”

While the magnitude of this is different depending on where I am, the legwork conducted, the size of the community and the number of service providers, if we want to move from current state to future state of effective homeless service delivery we need to “embrace the freak out”.

Organizations, in my experience, do not tend to resist change – they resist transitions. Getting agreement on a desired future state is not as difficult as walking through the steps to the future state. Homeless and housing services don’t grind to a halt during the transition. As such we need to support communities as they “build and fly the plane at the same time”.

4. Everyone is unique – just like everyone else.

Because I end up in so many different communities, I can proclaim with great certainty that while communities like to think that they are different and unique, with a few minor exceptions they really aren’t. Homelessness is homelessness. The causes of homelessness in one community are quite comparable to the experience in another. This doesn’t mean there aren’t community nuances or different approaches to things like the provision of income supports, but the organization of services and delivery of interventions that are proven to end homelessness are the same.

I am not preaching a cookie-cutter approach to ending homelessness, but there are a number of practices proven to get better results than others. The more than we emphasize the delivery of those practices, the better off the community will be. Make amendments for the local context and then follow the trail already blazed by someone else. 

5. Avoid junk science in assessment tools.

Let us assume that we all agree that as a homeless and housing service delivery system we want the right person/family to get to the right service at the right time to end their homelessness in the right way. (You can read more about that by reading this blog I pulled together for the National Alliance to End Homelessness.)

The real question is how are you going to assess and prioritize people to make that happen?

Let’s face some facts: most people that experience homelessness do so for a short period of time and are not homeless again; it is impossible to accurately predict homelessness (we can isolate risk factors and indicators but cannot demonstrate absolute cause and effect); triage is important for assessing urgency of assistance relative to presenting needs.

Properly assessing the needs of individuals and families is extremely important, and it must be done with tools that have been proven to work. Assessment tools have to be grounded in evidence, defensible in practice and be able to demonstrate different results based upon its use.

I value progressive engagement. We should do whatever we can to divert people away from services. Then we should do the least amount possible and see if people can end their own homelessness. Only then should we kick into gear and conduct a thorough assessment designed to determine housing and support needs. After that, the assessment should be used as a baseline and then used to track progress of the household over time relative to the initial assessment. The acuity of the household should go down over time.

In my experience the Vulnerability Index of the Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool are the most complete, evidence-supported options for assessing needs, prioritizing and serving people. Although there may be others, a system-approach to ending homelessness needs a common assessment tool that is proven to work.

Iain De Jong is the President & CEO of OrgCode Consulting, an international consulting firm focused on ending homelessness, driving change to promote community prosperity and challenging the status quo. Iain’s work has garnered many international awards and accolades for impact on housing, homelessness, social and health policy. A frequent keynote speaker, conference presenter and trainer, Iain writes a very popular blog that strongly emphasis ending homelessness (which you can find at www.orgcode.com, www.facebook.com/orgcodeor by following him @orgcode on Twitter) and very popular guest blogs for the likes of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a faculty position in the Graduate Planning Programme at York University.

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