Recidivism in a System Context

Recently I was in a community where a rather large service provider proclaimed that less than 10 of the households they served in the past year experienced recidivism. I was in awe. I wanted to know more. This could be the secret sauce! The holy grail of homelessness! The Colonel’s secret recipe!

But alas, it was all for nothing.

Like so many times before when I have heard about apparently amazing and effective programs, the truth of the matter is that the service provider totally misunderstood what recidivism is in a homeless system. I don’t blame them. I want to educate them.

Recidivism comes from the Latin word recidivus, which means to fall or to fall back. Some dictionaries will focus attention on falling back into crime. If it isn’t obvious to people familiar with me, and my blogs, I don’t equate homelessness with criminal activity.

So, to fall back. Let’s work with that.

What the service provider really meant was that they had less than 10 households that had fallen back to them. To them.

In communities with limited data systems, this may be the only way to track recidivism by organization, but it is a very limited way of tracking recidivism and one that isn’t true in a system context, especially in medium and large cities.  A service provider may know how many households fell back to them, but it doesn’t accurately tell us how many households fell back into homelessness.

Further investigation in this particular example revealed that there were many, many, many, many (did I mention, “many”?) more households that returned to homelessness. Those households just didn’t return to the same organization.

So, let’s make a distinction in recidivism – falling back into homelessness is the more important concern; not falling back to the same organization (which is important, but not as important).

Think about it from the client’s point of view. If you had – what you perceive to be – a failed outcome with a particular service provider, and you had a choice, would you return to them? All the while, that service provider may think they are doing a better job than they really are at supporting households out of homelessness. If ignorance is bliss, some service providers are orgasmic because not knowing and thinking they are doing well supersedes knowledge of the truth.

This isn’t a critique of service providers. Frankly, until there is a shared, open data system in every community that is focused on the needs of clients, this sort of thing will persist. But in the meantime, let us explore further (respectfully) when service providers tell us about their recidivism rate. Until we know what that means in a system context we may not know much at all about the effectiveness of our services and investments. We may be telling clients, other service providers and elected officials that programs are doing better than they are really doing – not with malicious intent, but because of lack of information.

Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong

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  1. David says:

    I mean this is a common systemic failure, right? Little do with the agency, and probably ultimately more to do with their CoC which lacks…

    A) Centralized Intake
    B) Data Sharing
    C) Concise, accurate, and ubiquitous follow-up measurements.

    I know here in Orange County CA, we’re rapidly moving on efforts for everyone to work together more coherently, fluidly, and in more of a nimble fashion. Not sure where this agency is, but at the outset it sounds like the same challenges some local agencies face, and it’s again due to aggregate/systemic issues within the CoC.

  2. Jim says:

    I am 100% in agreement that data is a key component to tracking and ultimately communicating success (or not) within a municipality.

    My only concern would be a straight up correlation between recidivism rates and the success of an agency. If one agency sees a family and they end up going back on the streets; Then ultimately get housing through another agency – was it that one agency is better than the other or is it the family was not ready at the time, but with the help of the first agency got some things in order to be ready?

    I was at a substance abuse conference and was talking with a gentlemen about data and he said that if someone has a forced admission to the agency they had a 80% chance that they would leave the agency and go back to abusing drugs. It would seem to indicate this does not work. However, he said that if someone had a forced admission at the agency they were 75% likely to check themselves back in at a later date (possibly at another clinic).