04/08/2013 - The Right Efforts, Focused in the Right Way

Nearing the end of my second month in Washington as a part of the USICH team, I am struck by the difference between what I expected to find and what I have found in this city and in this role. My new job at USICH is focused on our work ending homelessness among Veterans, implementing the new framework for ending youth homelessness, and convening the Council itself.

I came to USICH after serving as the point person for housing and homelessness programs at a county human services agency in the Twin Cities metro area. My time at Dakota County provided ample lessons about the practical realities of reaching people experiencing homelessness with the right intervention at the right time; the need to harmonize efforts across programs and organizations; having service capacity responsive to a wide spectrum of needs; and the importance of testing and refining policy based on a hard-nosed, ground-level assessment of its application. It was a privilege in my last job to develop and refine policy and programs by engaging our customers—people experiencing homelessness and staying in shelters, transitional housing and supportive housing—in shaping changes, and working with many  talented and passionate professionals in the process as well. The opportunity to implement new policies designed to speed exits from shelters and, the next month, talk with shelter residents about the impact of those policies was a powerful and often humbling experience.

Perhaps it was cynicism engendered by a mired Congress, or too many stump speeches leading up to the election, but I expected to come to D.C. in sales mode: convincing government about the need to put effort into the goals and strategies of Opening Doors. That would be familiar. Before Dakota County, I’d spent the previous 15 years at scrappy nonprofits like Hearth Connection, St. Stephen’s Human Services, and the Corporation for Supportive Housing often trying to pitch elected officials and public sector colleagues about this great idea of supportive housing for people with long histories of homelessness. Just before leaving for Washington, I also was reminded by a friend, mentor and former Federal bureaucrat of an adage about bureaucracy: you can pound on the head of the dragon, and three months later, its tail might twitch.

The shock then is to find—from my very first day in this new role—that Federal agencies are not only bought in on the goals of Opening Doors, they are moving mountains to achieve those goals. By refining and focusing each agency’s efforts and operating effectively together across agencies on shared efforts to end homelessness, the volume of effort and deep dedication of hundreds of leaders in the Federal government is as inspiring as it is unexpected. If this is what it means to be a Federal bureaucrat, then I am honored to join their ranks.

Our challenge is less about the sales pitch and more about focus: it is about trying to eke every last bit of impact out of our opportunities, at a Federal level and in partnerships with our collaborators across the country: other units of government, the nonprofit sector, the philanthropic community, the private sector, people experiencing homelessness, and other allies. I appreciate in a deeper way now that much Federal activity is invisible, occurring behind an impenetrable but essential curtain of concurrence. Concurrence is Washington talk for agreement and alignment. For big agencies to move mountains they have to agree, internally and with each other, to move them and on how to move them. The work of brokering that agreement, anticipating impacts, vetting contingencies, and preparing for the move is a huge part of what I’ve observed happening on the inside. This may not be very glamorous work but it is essential for making meaningful and lasting progress.

But the conversation doesn’t end there. First, you shouldn’t take my word for it. The fact that we’re working hard—like everyone else in this field—doesn’t give us a pass. We all need to continue to push, challenge, and inspire one another until everyone in this country has a safe and stable place to call home. Second, I hope you don’t let cynicism win. Every Federal agency I’ve worked with appreciates the wisdom, know-how and creativity that our partners outside of the Federal government bring to this conversation. We need your ideas, your energy and your engagement. If there is a better antidote to cynicism than getting involved, I don’t know what it is. And I can assure you, we not only welcome your involvement, we know that all of us need to be engaged to achieve our shared goals to end homelessness. It’s an honor to have this opportunity to support our shared efforts, and I look forward to working with you in my new role.

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