Organizing Information as a System Instead of a Collection of Projects in an Effort to End Homelessness

In working with housing and homeless information throughout my career it has always been my mission to get people to think and act like a system instead of a collection of projects. Truth is, funders like to attach the word “Program” to a lot of the work that they do, and this orientation has led many communities to organize their services by funding source rather than by what the outcomes are that the funding is trying to achieve. Across various funding programs there can be comparable, complimentary outcomes that are intended. So let’s take a closer look at how to organize information as a system instead of a collection of projects – which ultimately means organizing our projects like a system too.

It is my ardent belief that housing and homeless programs and services exist to end homelessness. A system-based approach places this belief at the center of the organization of information and wraps program areas around the central belief of ending homelessness. This means that all of the programs that are funded must be seamlessly linked to ending homelessness. Outreach services? Exist to end homelessness. Prevention services? Exist to end homelessness. Rapid Re-housing services? Exist to end homelessness. Emergency shelters? Exist to end homelessness. And I could go on with other program areas.

If we truly belief in ending homelessness – and we know that housing is the only known cure to homelessness – then each of these program areas needs to have a housing orientation as well. This can be a challenging way of thinking for some program areas that traditionally have not always kept this top of mind. Take for example a program area like street outreach. What is the link between street outreach and ending homelessness? What difference are we hoping street outreach makes? Some might think that street outreach exists to keep people alive through the provision of soup, sandwiches, sleeping bags and those sorts of things. Others might suggest that street outreach exists to connect or befriend people and create a trusting rapport. Yes, I believe that keeping people alive is a good thing. And yes, I believe that there has to be a professional connection. However, I do not believe that providing survival supports or building a trusting relationship is a sufficient output nor outcome in a service system design that supports ending homelessness. Street outreach services, therefore, should focus on getting people directly into housing or providing direct warm referrals to organizations that have a housing specialization.

Another good example is emergency shelter. What purpose do we really want emergency shelter to serve as we work to end homelessness? As it stands now – as I have seen countless times in my travels throughout North America – shelters have become a location that tend to gravitate (though not always) from one end of the continuum or the other without finding a balance. On the one end is the type of shelter that only opens at night – most often long after all other services and mainstream benefits offices have closed – and close up around breakfast time in the morning. On the other end are those shelters that have become so service rich that they have become de facto housing. These are the types of shelters that have the likes of employment programs, life skills classes, parenting classes, counseling services, clothing rooms, etc all on site. Access to these programs is most often predicated on being a resident at the shelter. The unintended consequence of this is that it keeps people homeless longer. And, evidence would suggest that helping people get out of the shelter and into the community and then providing supports to them in their housing would be better. So, with an orientation towards ending homelessness, we really need to view shelters as centers of opportunity. The opportunity we should be creating is the opportunity to get out of shelter rapidly, housed in the community and connected with services that are best equipped to meet their needs. Ending homelessness does not have to be anti-shelter. As I often say in my keynotes and training speeches, just because we have gotten better at fire prevention doesn’t mean you want to get rid of all of the fire halls in your city. The same is true of shelters. The key difference is that we want shelters to return to their original purpose – short term, infrequent use where people have their needs met quickly and move on. If we don’t have this orientation, demand for shelters will just increase more and more, and many a community will erroneously move towards an expansion of their shelter system rather than the original intended use of shelters.

Purpose drives metrics. Information organizes systems. In our world the system is intended to end homelessness. We need to have the right information to know if that is happening.

The first question I ask folks when they are working to address this is: what problem exists that this program should work to solve?

The second question I ask is: what difference will this program make?

These two questions are important because they frame the way in which I suggest projects and information become organized.

Let’s go back to outreach as an example. Broadly, outreach exists to solve the problem of homeless individuals not be connected to the services and resources that will end their homelessness. Within the program area called “Outreach” we can have a series of outreach projects. For example, maybe there is a specific project providing outreach to homeless youth. Maybe another tries to work with veterans. Another still might be for individuals with serious and persistent mental illness. Three different projects (and a lot of communities would have more than three) likely with three different sources of funding. But the common element of all three – and the way we need to look at them relative to a system approach – is that they are all types of outreach. The difference we hope they make may be that people are connected with relative to the intended populations served and geographic area, that services are offered and accepted that end their homelessness, and that their quality of life improves as a result of the outreach experience.

Project logic models are common, but my experience suggests that Program logic models are infrequent. Project logic models are almost exclusively related to a single source of funding. Program logic models transcend funding source and, in fact, are a single place where all investment into a program sector can be tracked regardless of what the source of the funds are.

I think it is important that our work be seen as a quality business, not a quantity business. While the metrics for any program sector are definitely going to be quantified, the biggest mistake we see is that many an organization (often as a result of many a funder) focus on outputs instead of outcomes and seek a large volume of people connected with. If we want to have a quality business we must be thinking about standardized assessments across all program areas, revamped intake processes that provide us the information necessary for knowing which individuals will be best served by which programs (and projects within those programs) and ensuring that investment in the time and resources, say, to house and support 100 people with more intensive service needs is likely going to be more costly than having 300 people with moderate needs housed but having two-thirds or more become homeless again.

If we want to drive this sort of change in organizing by program sectors and perhaps even drive change in service approaches in each of these program sectors, what is necessary next is to have a clear strategic objective for the program sector and the right program indicators and right program targets.

The strategic objective sets out what exactly it is we want the program sector to strategically accomplish. It needs to be SMART: Specific; Measurable; Attainable; Realistic; Timed. Missing any of those ingredients and the strategic objective won’t hold the program sector together and it will also invite ambiguity in mission across the various projects.

Allow me to again use street outreach as an example to demonstrate a SMART strategic objective for the entire program sector:

Decrease street homelessness by 50% or more by the next Point in Time Count, providing direct assistance to street homeless individuals and families by helping them locate and maintain housing, assisting them in moving off the street by reuniting with family/friends, and through the use of emergency shelters.

In this type of example, the Performance Indicators for the Outreach Program Sector (which, as a reminder, is likely comprised of a range of different outreach projects) may include the likes of:

  • # of unique individuals served
  • # of single person households, two person households without children and adult head(s) of household with children served, unaccompanied children served
  • # of successful housing outputs (unique individuals & by type of household)
  • # of successful reunifications with family/friends that result in moving off the street (unique individuals & by type of household)
  • # of successful emergency shelter referrals
  • # and % of households that experience recidivism and return to the street

And we can drive change and provide clarity for the Outreach Program Sector example by providing some very specific Performance Targets such as:

  • each outreach team to work with no more than 25 unique households per month
  • 4 successful housing outputs per outreach team per month, 3 of which must have higher acuity
  • 6 successful shelter outputs per outreach team per month, 4 of which must have higher acuity
  • 1 successful family/friend reunification per outreach team per month

As you can see, the emphasis is having the right Strategic Objective, Indicators and Targets for the Program Sector. This provides clarifying unity of purpose across all projects within the sector. Does it prevent some projects of having some unique elements? No. Does it take away individual organizational autonomy? No.

For funders and policy makers, this type of approach can allow them to better understand and leverage resources across different areas. It can also streamline meetings, communications and interactions with communities when, for example, all funders that invest in outreach come together at the same time with their service provider community.

For service providers, this type of approach provides many benefits as well. For one, they can increase their community accountability and accountability with the people that they serve. They can better describe their project activities within broader program objectives. And it should provide the opportunity to decrease duplication in services within any program area.

For the community as a whole, this orientation allows everyone to track whether the mission of ending homelessness is making progress. Ending homelessness doesn’t happen as a result of any single funding source. It happens across funding sources. The approach to organizing information and the system as a whole has to reflect that.

Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong