Last week saw the conclusion of Evaluate Upstream, a year-long, community planning process. Evaluate Upstream intended to develop a comprehensive and sustainable prevention assistance system for Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Funded by a Continuum of Care (CoC) planning grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and launched by Mecklenburg County Community Support Services, Evaluate Upstream had the following goals: to document existing prevention resources across Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and determine whether and how they work together; to design an optimally functioning prevention network; and to develop an evaluation framework for an impactful homelessness prevention system in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
“Prevention” is defined as a category of assistance that targets households “upstream” from homelessness; these individuals and families are facing housing instability but have not yet lost their housing. Applying this definition, prevention assistance exists on a continuum; assistance can be administered not only prior to the loss of housing, but even after households exit into permanent housing with the goal of helping them sustain it. Prevention includes three tiers of assistance: community-wide interventions aimed at changing systems and structures that perpetuate housing instability; cross-sector collaboration and coordination to reduce the prevalence of homelessness; and targeted interventions including financial and legal assistance to help households maintain their housing.
The purpose of this blog post is to share the process and output of Evaluate Upstream, including the crafting of a blueprint for a prevention assistance system. This blog will also discuss how this work will shift from planning to implementation; and ultimately, what this can mean for Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
CONDITIONS AT THE INITIATION OF EVALUATE UPSTREAM
Historically, planning and investment efforts related to homelessness have focused on the “downstream” components of the homeless services system. These elements seek to reduce homelessness by increasing access to, and availability of, permanent housing. In response to COVID-19, communities are developing strategic housing and homelessness plans to integrate public health promotion with economic recovery. Prevention is now seen as key to protecting the community and ensuring housing stability.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg has been focused on prevention assistance (as a system) long before the COVID-19 pandemic. The concept for Evaluate Upstream began in 2018 when Mecklenburg County staff submitted the CoC planning grant application to develop a prevention assistance system. The grant was fully funded and allocated to Mecklenburg County on behalf of the CoC in early 2020. Between submitting the grant and receiving the funding, Mecklenburg County Community Support Services released a report entitled Launch Upstream: Homelessness Prevention in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. As a precursor to the work of the planning grant, the report defined and described a framework for organizing prevention assistance as a system, including the landscape of providers and dedicated funding streams in the community.
Launched amid the pandemic, Evaluate Upstream was executed successfully as an all-virtual community planning process. ROI Impact Consulting, Inc. was contracted to design and manage that engagement effort. The work essentially involved four phases, with each building upon the last, culminating in the production of the Evaluate Upstream blueprint.
The outputs are organized below by phase:
PHASE 1: Best Practices & Resources
Phase 1 involved mapping the homelessness prevention resources inventory in the community; outlining national and global best practices in prevention research; and collecting data on the needs of households who are currently unstably housed or at risk of homelessness. The outputs of this “discovery” phase include:
- Inventory and searchable database of local resources focused on homelessness prevention across all three tiers of the prevention assistance system.
- Inventory of best practice research on prevention assistance
- Results of a survey of NC 2-1-1 system callers experiencing housing instability.
PHASE 2: Appreciative Inquiry
The goal of Phase 2, which was grounded in an “Appreciative Inquiry” approach, was to document firsthand stories of ways individuals and families experiencing housing instability managed to avoid homelessness. Over the course of several individual and group sessions, community members who had lived experience with housing instability, as well as staff on the front lines of housing-related and critical needs services, shared their experiences and insights. A key underlying principle of the Appreciative Inquiry model is that building upon strengths (and what is working or has worked in the past) will generate support, action, and momentum. The output from this phase includes:
- Appreciative Inquiry: Overview, Process Design, Change Results, & Lessons Learned In addition, information is provided about how the data and lessons learned from this phase were integrated into the subsequent phases of Evaluate Upstream.
PHASE 3: Design Thinking
Phase 3 employed “Design Thinking” to collectively reimagine a highly coordinated and impactful prevention network. This phase, as managed by Faster Glass, was launched on 18/19 November and continued through the first quarter of 2021. Design Thinking is considered an iterative, solutions-driven, and prototype-based approach to problem solving; in this context, it was used to help a committed, cross-sector team of over 50 community stakeholders to critically think about how Charlotte-Mecklenburg might integrate, invest, and expand on the resources that are currently working well in support of households who are struggling to maintain housing. The output of this phase includes:
- Design Thinking: Overview, Design Sprint Goals, Process, and Individuals Involved In addition, information is provided about how this phase informs the Evaluate Upstream blueprint; and links are provided to additional resources, including the blueprint’s conceptual framework.
PHASE 4: Homelessness Prevention Blueprint & Evaluation Framework
Phase 4 represents the culmination and collation of all the work in the prior phases of Evaluate Upstream: a robust and comprehensive action plan that defines impact areas, action steps and defined outcomes for an effective, sustainable prevention assistance system in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. The blueprint is organized into 5 main impact areas. These reflect solutions attending to the demand-side factors of households seeking housing assistance; supply-side factors affecting the number of housing units that are affordable and available in community; and recommendations to reform systems and structures that impact housing instability and homelessness.
BEYOND EVALUATE UPSTREAM
The conclusion of Evaluate Upstream marks (another) new beginning in the work to develop and sustain a comprehensive prevention assistance system in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. With the blueprint complete, a key next step will be to build investment in, and shared ownership of, its implementation. To that end, we have some important updates to share regarding the next stage of this work:
Roadmap for Implementation
The roadmap to transforming the recommendations in the Evaluate Upstream Blueprint into action will be outlined through the Prevention Workstream of the 2025 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing & Homelessness Strategy. This workstream will embody both the guiding principles of the blueprint and the core values of the overall planning process as it charts the course for a successful implementation. If you are interested in participating in the Prevention Workstream, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ownership & Sustainability
Beyond implementation, if the prevention assistance system is to be both optimized and sustained, the system must have shared ownership by all stakeholders. As recommended in the Evaluate Upstream Blueprint, is also essential that there be a single entity that ensures that the planning work is carried out with fidelity to the recommendations. In response to both the increased need for housing assistance in the community and the need to build the capacity to address it comprehensively, Mecklenburg County Community Support Services launched a new division focused on housing strategy, policy, and alignment. In addition to downstream aspects of the housing continuum like shelter and permanent affordable housing, this division will also be responsible for implementation oversight of the recommendations of Evaluate Upstream.
The picture depicted on the front cover of the Evaluate Upstream Blueprint is of a painting* with a tree alone in a field, standing tall and bright, against the backdrop of a gathering storm. Even before the pandemic, the work of Evaluate Upstream was relevant. Since the start of the pandemic, with tens of thousands of households at risk of eviction in this community, its importance has only increased. This is the storm that is (and has been) looming in our background.
The work of Evaluate Upstream will strengthen the roots of our tree. It will help 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.
From the very beginning, the process of Evaluate Upstream has been different. In addition to collecting data and research on what works, it has integrated the voice and perspective of people who have experienced housing instability into the solution. Evaluate Upstream included stakeholders from across the housing continuum, as well as from non-housing sectors, in order to develop solutions that are both comprehensive and sustainable. In fact, this process resulted in deep, multi-directional communications among and across: elected officials and staff from all three public entities (Board of Mecklenburg County Commissioners, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, and Charlotte City Council); housing and homeless service providers; workforce development sector; faith community; funders; housing developers, managers, and landlords; business community; and individuals with lived experience. And the process was intentionally designed to complement any ongoing work and initiatives to, instead of creating new silos, breakdown barriers and fill gaps. This, ultimately, has led to the integration of this effort into the 2025 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing & Homelessness Strategy.
As we shift from plan development to implementation, it is important to recognize that Evaluate Upstream is also a shift in community direction. The timing of this focus on prevention complements the changes in existing systems to meet the challenges of the pandemic. Evaluate Upstream is a milestone in the community fight to end and prevent homelessness.
Evaluate Upstream is also plowing the ground for Charlotte-Mecklenburg to recognize prevention as a smart, strategic intervention. Because it is not the responsibility of the prevention workstream, alone, to bring this blueprint to life. The reality is that it is up to each of us to advance this work; to feed, nurture, and shape our tree. Anyone from the community is invited to get involved in contributing to the implementation of the Evaluate Upstream Blueprint. 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.
There is a powerful storm looming, and much transformative work to do. Evaluate Upstream is the fertile ground in which our tree will stand firm…and thrive.
* 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.
Karen Pelletier is the Division Director of newly formed Housing Innovation & Strategy Division with Mecklenburg County Community Support Services. In this role, she convenes, coordinates and aligns Mecklenburg County funding, programs, and policies to comprehensively address housing instability and homelessness.