OPTIMIZING THE HOMELESSNESS PREVENTION ASSISTANCE SYSTEM IN CHARLOTTE-MECKLENBURG
Design Thinking Explained
The third phase of project known as “Design Thinking Phase” was launched in November 2020. Design Thinking is a human-centered, iterative, solutions-driven and prototype-based approach to problem solving, based on a deep understanding of the people for whom solutions to homelessness prevention are being imagined. Design Thinking is the perfect planning complement to the Appreciative Inquiry data gathering methodology (the second phase). The third phase also marks an important pivot from research and data collection to program design and implementation.
The Design Thinking phase included a committed, cross-sector team of more than 50 community stakeholders who met virtually for a two-day “Design Sprint” in January 2021. The Design Thinking team and Advisory Council include community members with lived experience with housing instability and homelessness, business leaders, service providers, elected officials, housing advocates, policy experts and affordable housing developers across the public, private and nonprofit spectrum.
Design Sprint Goals
The Evaluate Upstream Design Sprint had three stated goals:
- To develop a shared understanding of the interrelated factors that lead to housing instability and homelessness
- To develop consensus on the homelessness prevention framework that will be used as a source for system-level recommendations
- 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.
Design Sprint Process
During the Sprint, Design Thinkers were assembled into eight teams corresponding with the eight impact areas. Each team was tasked with identifying and addressing contributing factors. 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 blueprint 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.
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.