Last week, more than 40 individuals with diverse backgrounds, representing the public and private sectors, both for-profit and non-profit; as well as community advocates, participated in a two-day Design Sprint as part of “Evaluate Upstream.” Evaluate Upstream is a homelessness prevention system change effort focused on addressing structural factors that affect access to and sustainability of housing. The goal of Evaluate Upstream is to develop a comprehensive homelessness prevention assistance system in Charlotte-Mecklenburg that is grounded in shared accountability.
The Design Sprint represented a critical pivot from the research, data collection, and systems mapping that occurred in the initial segments of this multi-phase process. The ideation that occurred during the Design Thinking “sprint” will lay the foundation for next steps, which will ultimately lead to the implementation of an effective, collaboratively designed prevention system. To read the previous update on the work of Evaluate Upstream, click here.
Evaluate Upstream was conceived well before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It originated as a Continuum of Care (CoC) planning grant request that was submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) over three years ago. The need identified at that time was the same as it is now: Charlotte-Mecklenburg has multiple organizations providing a range of prevention activities, but there is neither a unified strategy, nor a concerted effort to align the whole array of prevention resources to the needs of the populations at risk of experiencing homelessness. The COVID-19 pandemic (and subsequent assistance disbursed from the federal government to keep households from eviction) has only underscored the need for an optimized prevention assistance system that is complementary to the rest of the housing ecosystem.
The purpose of this week’s blog post is to provide an update on Evaluate Upstream, including implications of this work for the housing ecosystem and for Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
The approach to Evaluate Upstream has been different from its very conception. After all, doing the same thing the same way produces the same results. There are three primary differences that both distinguish Evaluate Upstream from other efforts, and which have the potential to propel the solutions.
First, Evaluate Upstream did not solely compile data and research on “what works” relative to prevention. Instead, Evaluate Upstream has employed a method called “Appreciative Inquiry.” This approach has the advantage of integrating the voices of those who have experienced housing instability into the work.
Second, Evaluate Upstream has included representatives from across the private and public sector: staff and elected officials from Mecklenburg County, City of Charlotte, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools; providers across all tiers of prevention assistance; housing assistance and homeless service providers; funders; members of the faith community; individuals with lived experience; housing development, management, and real estate firms; and representatives from other sectors that intersect with housing instability and homelessness.
Third, Evaluate Upstream has worked diligently to integrate any program-level or systems-focused initiatives in Charlotte-Mecklenburg to avoid creating new silos; instead, the intent is to break down barriers, and fill gaps.
These three aspects of Evaluate Upstream are vital to ensure that there is an effective final product. More important is that the right process, done well, will best position the product for community ownership. And that the successful adoption and execution will then translate to the downstream components of the housing continuum.
DESIGN SPRINT HIGHLIGHTS
The Evaluate Upstream Design Sprint had three stated goals: 1) To develop a shared understanding of the interrelated factors that lead to housing instability and homelessness; 2) To develop consensus on the homelessness prevention framework that will be used as a source for system-level recommendations; and 3) To create a collaboratively designed implementation and ownership blueprint for the prevention systems solutions. The “Design Thinkers”, or participants in the Design Sprint, considered eight categories of factors that contribute to housing instability and homelessness through three lenses: demand side; supply side; and systems and structures.
- Demand side issues include the concerns of individuals and families who face housing instability and homelessness. In other words, is there equality in access to the resources? What needs must be met?
- Supply side issues refer to the resources to ensure access to and sustainability of permanent, affordable housing. This includes removing barriers to access housing; increasing housing supply; and targeting resources to prevent and end homelessness. What must be provided to meet the needs identified?
- Systems and structures incorporate the policies, practices, and institutions that either prohibit or facilitate positive change. Examples include cross-sector funding alignment to prioritize prevention assistance; and incentives to attract and/or retain businesses which support housing and/or a living wage. What role does government play? What is the work of private enterprise in addressing homelessness?
To see the full framework with all eight categories, click here.
During the Sprint, Design Thinkers were assembled into eight teams corresponding with the eight factors. Each team was tasked with addressing a contributing factor. For example, the team assigned to the category of “Cross-sector alignment of prevention funding and resources” sought to address the following question: “How might we align funding, in a cross-sector way, to address the breadth of resources required to prevent homelessness and recidivism?”
Rather than jumping to solutions, the work of the Design Thinkers was intentionally slowed to concentrate on understanding the opportunities (challenges) through each of the three lenses. It was important to view all the opportunities from every angle; this is essential to crafting a final product that is comprehensive, holistic, and sustainable. Design Thinkers were also encouraged to be creative, innovative, open to new approaches, and willing to take risks.
Each team developed their “top two” potential concepts, ultimately settling on one that would be presented to community leaders comprising the Design Sprint Advisory Council on Day 2. In addition to addressing the concept through all three lenses, the teams of Thinkers also had to discuss underlying assumptions; barriers and/or unintended consequences; resources required; and requirements for ownership and partnership of their concept. Before sharing with the Advisory Council, each group shared their working concepts from the other seven Design Thinking teams in a segment referred to as “flash feedback.”
A refined concept was then briefly presented by each team to the entire Advisory Council membership. Immediately following the presentations was a rich and candid conversation, which flowed for one-and-a-half hours. Much of the discussion was about what the possibilities are, and what it would take to deliver on the most promising concepts. The process resulted in deep, multi-directional communications: elected officials and staff from all three public entities (Board of Mecklenburg County Commissioners, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, and Charlotte City Council) were engaged with providers; who were talking with funders; who were conversing with individuals from the business community; who were interacting with individuals with lived experience; who were speaking with housing developers.
It is promising that the proposed concepts, and other ideas generated through the Design Sprint, will be transformed into an implementation plan in subsequent phases of this work. However, the fact that this discussion could even occur at all is as potentially significant as any outcome resulting from the exercise.
WHAT’S NEXT & HOW TO STAY INVOLVED
The next phase of work will engage a subset of the Design Sprint participants to incorporate the ideas produced during the sprint with the research and input from previous phases into a coherent, cohesive framework for homelessness prevention. Significantly, this includes an evaluation methodology, with corresponding metrics, to enable ongoing measurement and monitoring of progress toward preventing homelessness. The framework prototype will be tested through an iterative process with community stakeholders, and continue its evolution. This work will ramp up between now and the end of April when the grant period expires, but it will not end there.
A key next step will be to build investment in, and shared ownership of, the implementation of the framework, so that this work is carried beyond the term of the planning grant. Conversations are underway regarding this coordination. But if our community’s cross-sector effort is to be both optimized and sustained, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg homelessness prevention must have shared ownership by all stakeholders.
There is much work to be done to make Evaluate Upstream successful and sustainable. Anyone from the community is invited to get involved in contributing to the framework as it evolves. Stakeholders and organizations across all sectors – employers, providers, funders, elected officials, and community advocates – are encouraged to champion, invest in, and co-own the work that will be required. Providers are encouraged to expand the groundbreaking collaborations that have emerged since the pandemic began, on behalf of the people who experience homelessness or are at risk of losing their housing; this is the ground in which our tree will take root.
We encourage everyone, whether actively involved or interested from afar, to sign up to receive Evaluate Upstream project updates via the Building Bridges Blog (by entering your email address below) where ongoing progress and opportunities for engagement will be shared.
The picture depicted above is of a painting* with a tree alone in a field, standing tall and bright, against the backdrop of a gathering storm. The work of Evaluate Upstream was pertinent three years ago; and it is incredibly relevant today. There is a federal moratorium that has paused evictions at least until the end of March. There is over $70 billion in combined back-owed rent and housing-related expenses from renters across the United States. Of direct consequence is the fact there are over 10,000 households currently at high risk of eviction in our community. All these numbers will only worsen over time without new interventions and assistance. This is the storm that is looming in our background.
Consider the tree in the picture. Evaluate Upstream, inclusive of last week’s Design Sprint, is trying to strengthen the roots of our tree, and to ensure that what goes into the ground will be comprehensive, sustainable, holistic, strategic, and nimble: to keep our tree viable, and standing tall, no matter what storm approaches. To guarantee the health of our tree, though, our community must also wrestle with ownership of both the opportunities and the solutions. Who among our community is going to make sure that the tree survives the storm?
The reality is that it is up to all of us to advance this work from ideation to implementation; to feed, nurture, and shape our tree. We hope you and your organizations will join Evaluate Upstream through the opportunities identified above. There is a powerful storm brewing, and much transformative work to do.
* Painting is by R.T. Morgan, West Jefferson, North Carolina
Courtney LaCaria coordinates posts on the Building Bridges Blog. Courtney is the Housing & Homelessness Research Coordinator for Mecklenburg County Community Support Services. Courtney’s job is to connect data on housing instability, homelessness and affordable housing with stakeholders in the community so that they can use it to drive policy-making, funding allocation and programmatic change.