The August 19, 2020 Building Bridges blog post shared information about the homelessness prevention planning project, Evaluate Upstream: Optimizing the Homelessness Prevention Assistance System in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
The project was launched in May 2020 by Mecklenburg County Community Support Services; and is funded by a Continuum of Care (CoC) planning grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The goals of the project are to document existing prevention resources across Charlotte-Mecklenburg; determine whether (and how well) they work together; design an optimally functioning prevention network; and develop an evaluation framework. Together, these efforts will devise and sustain a homelessness prevention system to positively impact Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
Six months into the project life-cycle, this week’s blog post will provide an update on Evaluate Upstream, including lessons learned and what’s next for the work ahead.
PROJECT PHASES I-III
Evaluate Upstream is unfolding in five phases over the course of a year. The first two phases have been completed, and the third phase has just gotten underway. A summary of these three phases follows.
Conduct a homelessness prevention resource inventory mapping and outline national and global best practices in prevention research.
What has been learned about existing homelessness prevention resources?
Cataloging programs and services which are focused (in any way) on homelessness prevention has netted a wide array of initiatives. Over 40 prevention assistance programs and services in Charlotte-Mecklenburg have been documented, across three tiers of the prevention assistance continuum. The tiers are defined as follows:
Tier 1 – Community-wide interventions aimed at changing systems and structures that perpetuate housing instability.
Tier 2 – Cross-sector collaboration and coordination to reduce the prevalence of homelessness.
Tier 3 – Targeted interventions, including financial and legal assistance, to help households maintain their housing.
Of the 40 programs, 30 are categorized as Tier 1; 13 as Tier 2; and 9 as Tier 3. 12 operate across two tiers of prevention assistance; three organizations work across all three tiers.
Interviews with prevention-focused programs asked about the number and names of other providers with whom they collaborated in prevention efforts. Thirty-two of the 40 programs reported working cooperatively with at least three other programs to provide homelessness prevention services. However, prevention resources are not connected and coordinated in any formal or systematic way.
What has been learned about best practices in homelessness prevention?
Research on best practices in homelessness prevention, nationally and across the world, shows that prevention efforts are sorted into three primary categories: demand-side supports, which address the needs of households facing housing instability & homelessness; supply side initiatives, such as strategies and resources to ensure access to and sustainability of permanent, affordable housing; and systems and structures like policies, practices and institutions that facilitate positive change. As progress toward a more holistic and impactful prevention system is made, it is important to bracket solutions to better identify gaps and opportunities.
What has been learned from (and about) households unstably housed or at risk of homelessness?
As a one component of data collection efforts, a survey of callers to NC 2-1-1 was undertaken. Between January 1 and July 10, 2020, callers who were determined by NC 2-1-1 operators to be at risk of becoming homeless were included in the survey.
The NC 2-1-1 protocol prescribes that callers determined to be at risk of homelessness be given a list of community resources that might assist their housing needs. The survey was intended to determine the housing outcomes for these callers, and to ascertain which, if any, referral resources helped resolve their housing needs. Among the 131 study participants, 59% reported that their housing needs remained unresolved; 24% shared that their needs were temporarily resolved; and 17% indicated that their housing needs were permanently resolved. Only one-third of survey participants found the resources to which they were referred helpful in resolving their housing needs.
The current living situation of the study participants was also captured; 53% were living in a hotel or motel at the time of the study. Almost 21% were living with family or friends, and 15% were renters holding leases in their own names.
Undertake an “Appreciative Inquiry” approach to document households experiencing housing instability manage to avoid homelessness
Phase II was an “Appreciative Inquiry” (AI) process of gathering data from residents of Mecklenburg County who have had firsthand experience with housing instability, but managed to avoid homelessness. AI is a philosophy of change management that is strengths-based and grounded in positive psychology. Of specific interest was learning about sources of support and other resources that contributed to success in stabilizing their housing situations. The information shared through this process will assist in ensuring the replication and scaling of what works.
Our team of “appreciative interviewers” conducted 21 interviews with individuals who have experienced housing instability or homelessness, but overcame their circumstances to stabilize their housing. The stories the interviewers captured were both compelling and inspiring, and provided some key insights for the homelessness prevention redesign process. Among these are the idea that the redesign process must engage individuals who are (or have been) impacted by housing instability and homelessness; the reality that a truly effective prevention network must include better communication, to ensure awareness of available resources; and the need for a cross-sector approach to prevention efforts. One of the most important recommendations out of the AI process was the need for “System Navigators.”
Employ “Design Thinking” to imagine a highly coordinated and impactful prevention network.
Phase III of the project was launched on 18 and 19 November.
“Design Thinking” is a human-centered, iterative, and prototype-based approach to problem solving. This phase of the work is based on a deep understanding of the people for whom homelessness prevention solutions are being imagined. As such, it is the perfect planning complement to the “Appreciative Inquiry” data gathering methodology. This phase of the work will continue until the end of First Quarter 2021.
A committed, cross-sector team of over 50 community stakeholders will, over the next two months, be immersed in the information collected to date. This “Design Thinking” team includes community members with lived experience with housing instability and homelessness; business leaders; service providers; elected officials; housing advocates; policy experts; and affordable housing developers.
Evaluate Upstream continues to progress from data collection, to design, and then to implementation and beyond in preparation for redesigning a network of homelessness prevention services that is holistic, collaborative, and truly impactful. While the immediate next steps in the redesign process will occur over the next two months, the overall effort will not end there. Upcoming phases will focus on issues such as ownership, implementation, and sustainability of the products of Phase III.
The work ahead will be increasingly challenging. To be successful, Evaluate Upstream will require creativity, innovation, openness to new approaches, and a willingness to take risks. With the looming expiration of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) eviction moratorium, Charlotte-Mecklenburg faces potentially unprecedented levels of homelessness. Worse, this wave will disproportionately affect communities of color. Charlotte-Mecklenburg possesses the talent and the resources to change the trajectory of housing instability and homelessness; it just requires a commitment to swimming upstream.
Rosalyn Allison-Jacobs is an Organization Development, Change Management, and Process Improvement consultant working in the public, non-profit, and philanthropic sectors. Mecklenburg County Community Support Services (CSS) has contracted with ROI Impact Consulting to carry out the work of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Continuum of Care (CoC) planning grant.