Changing the way we do business has the potential to improve outcomes for families who are homeless across each of our communities.
Last week, I participated in a research symposium that brought together some of the nation’s smartest thinkers around the problem of ending homelessness for families who are involved with the child welfare system. These families often face complex challenges: extreme poverty, substance abuse, mental illness, involvement in the criminal justice system―things that can make it very difficult to keep your family stable and raise happy and healthy children. Fortunately, the systems responsible for both the services and the housing these families may receive are forging new partnerships across the thick walls of government silos that all too often inhibit effective collaboration.
Chief among the challenges, however, may be the absence of a sufficient supply of affordable housing. While there are many entitlement programs designed to help families stay together and healthy― things like Medicaid, child welfare services, Head Start, etc.―housing, as an entitlement, is not among them. Although homelessness is all too often associated with families that end up involved with the child welfare system, there is no guarantee that these families will get access to one of the things they may need most to stabilize: a place to call home.
To forge new solutions, the Departments of Housing & Urban Development and Health & Human Services are taking much the same approach we ask every homeless or child welfare-involved family to take when contemplating improvements to their circumstances: identify your strengths, align those strengths with the approaches you know work, combine forces to increase your capacity to tackle your problems, and begin at a shared starting point that offers the best pathway to long-term success.
At a systems level, this means aligning the housing resources HUD brings to the table with HHS’ child welfare resources. It means bringing together at one table the best of what each system is learning works most effectively and efficiently to maximize the resources that are available. It means challenging inefficient or ineffective responses that have become all too familiar, and testing new and promising approaches like coordinated entry, progressive engagement, and rapid re-housing. But, like most people, systems don’t easily give up familiar behaviors and practices. Incentives that stimulate change are essential, and once the change process has been set in motion, positive reinforcement is crucial to long-term success.
For the philanthropic sector, being part of this change process with our partners at HUD and HHS means sitting alongside them and learning about where the greatest potentials for success really lie. It means challenging assumptions about what we think has worked in the past ―and what some of us may be continuing to fund. It means aligning our energy, our resources, and our passion with the process of systems change.
Changing the way we do business has the potential to improve outcomes for families who are homeless across each of our communities. Good stewardship of the resources that have been entrusted to us requires nothing less.
David Wertheimer is the Deputy Director of the Pacific Northwest Initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, as well as the Board Chair of Funders Together to End Homelessness. Find him at @DavidWSeattle.