Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Changing Homeless and Mainstream Service Systems: Essential Approaches to Ending Homelessness. Context of the Local Community and the State


The starting frame of reference of the local community will impact the speed of change and may affect a communitys ability to mobilize stakeholders. The community leaders driving change will need to assess the current stage of the system (isolation, communication, coordination, collaboration, or coordinated community response). Readiness for change is affected by the occurrence of trigger events that mobilize community support, whether providers are content or dissatisfied with their current methods of addressing homelessness, prevailing philosophies and level of investment related to the current system, availability of data to compel change, the economic and social climate that may affect a communitys ability or willingness to redirect resources to address homelessness, and commitments of those who control major resources beyond the community itself. For instance, if public agencies and homeless assistance providers alike acknowledge that current approaches are not effective in addressing homelessness, there is a shared context for discussing possible solutions that will probably involve system change. If no trigger events have provided the impetus for change or if no data show that the current system is failing, then many may resist change altogether. If agencies are already collaborating, then they already have skills and experience working together on community solutions and will have an easier time taking the next step (Pindus et al., 2000; Martinson & Holcomb, 2002).

Trigger Events and Paradigm Shifts

A recent HUD-sponsored study examined seven communities making progress in ending chronic street homelessness (Burt et al., 2004).[1]  The study identified the importance of a trigger event in mobilizing significant commitment to developing new approaches to ending homelessness for this most resistant segment of the homeless population. In most of the communities visited, a trigger event galvanized the observed approach. In Columbus and San Diego, the event was the desire to develop a part of downtown that had a high concentration of street homeless people. The business leaders who wanted the development became committed to assuring that it did not happen unless plans were in place to serve and house the homeless people it would displace. In Philadelphia and Birmingham the trigger event was a proposed anti-homeless city ordinance. Consumer and service provider protests in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and San Diego stimulated responses in those communities, and an invitation to develop a pilot program for a new funding source prompted the Los Angeles County Sheriff and Mental Health Department to work together for the first time to create an integrated services program for homeless people with mental illness who were leaving the jail with no place to go. The two communities that already had strong organizational structures and leadership (Columbus and Philadelphia) were able to capitalize on these trigger events with relative ease and speed. But it is important to note that several communities and public agencies that did not have an organized leadership structure or well-developed public agency involvement and investment before the trigger event (for example, San Diego and two programs in Los Angeles) were able to use the event to re-examine their situation, decide to take action, organize themselves, mobilize resources, and make and carry out plans for approaches to address and reduce chronic street homelessness. Thus, these communities were able to turn these trigger events to their advantage and gain commitments to new goals and new resources, rather than allowing the event to worsen the circumstances of street homeless people. The event itself is often perceived locally as a watershed moment  the catalyst that began the process that resulted in the current commitment to reduce or end chronic street homelessness.

Frustration and Philosophy

If homeless assistance providers feel their current approaches are working to end homelessness, they may resist efforts at system change. Alternatively, some providers and some public agencies committed to a high-demand approach will not consider certain models that have been shown to work with very service-resistant homeless people but which conflict with their philosophical viewpoints. But if providers themselves are frustrated with the current models or feel that the current system is ineffective in engaging certain populations, they are more likely to welcome change. For instance, in Chicago it was the providers, not the city, that came back from national conferences saying what were doing is not working, we have to do something different and lobbied until they got a 10-year planning process under way. The process of change does not stop with a recognition that something different is needed, and even high frustration levels do not necessarily lead to change without other ingredients also being present. For instance, providers may not have the knowledge or organizational capacity to move to new approaches even if they want to, and funders may be stymied by contractual processes that are hard to shift or change. Later in this paper we give examples of system change efforts designed to help existing and potential new providers develop the skills needed to operate new kinds of programs. A community-wide system change effort will need to account for all of these factors as it moves forward and find ways to accommodate each stakeholders current position while working toward a more effective overall system.

Using Data to Support Change

Accurate information is always a powerful weapon in the quest for change, but it is not always easy to find. Most critically, accurate information about ones own community is the most convincing to local decision makers, but often it does not exist. We began this paper with a fairly dramatic example of the use of data to effect change  how the National Alliance to End Homelessness along with other advocates used information about population size, the success of permanent supportive housing, and public costs avoided to promote a federal commitment to ending chronic homelessness. Local communities also generate and use data in a variety of ways to stimulate change and then sustain and expand the investment. Later in this paper we discuss ways that communities use information to manage change efforts, but here we want to offer some examples of how communities have made sure that they developed the local information they needed to prompt commitments to system change.

  • In 1986, Columbus, Ohio, was one of the first communities in the country to develop and install a simple homeless management information system (HMIS) to track shelter use and get an accurate count of homeless people in the system (Burt et al., 2004). The Community Shelter Board director at the time, who insisted on installing the system, later said, Once we had data, we stopped arguing about whether we had a problem and started working on how to solve it.
  • Hennepin County, Minnesota, also developed its own data system for its homelessness prevention and rapid shelter exit programs for families. The county staff use the system daily to manage the programs and to assess system outcomes  specifically, whether families who receive program services become homeless or return to homelessness (Burt, Pearson, & Montgomery, 2005). Being able to show the programs excellent track record with homeless families entering shelter (reducing the number of families in shelter by half, halving lengths of stay, and keeping further loss of housing and return to shelter within 12 months down to only 12 percent) has been instrumental in keeping the programs state funding flowing.
  • Portland, Oregons Bureau of Housing and Community Development collected impact data on a pilot project that it hoped would become a model for future programming to end street homelessness. Transitions to Housing offers providers whatever it takes flexible funding to house and support the hardest-to-serve single homeless adults. Politicians were skeptical but willing to back a pilot. When the evaluation data showed clear success, it was the starting point for expanding the program and moving forward with more system-wide changes.
  • In Seattle, a study by the county health department noted many deaths among single adult homeless people in King County. This study had a very powerful effect in generating political will because it got a lot of press in local newspapers. Public attitudes really drive the agenda at the state capital, and the study created strong public interest in reducing the vulnerability of homeless street people, for which permanent supportive housing was a clear solution. The study came at a time when the Taking Health Care Home (THCH) project was working to develop more resources for PSH and had created a Funders Group to think through how this might be done. The THCH coordinator was asked to make a presentation to the state legislature using THCH data and the results of the Funders Group deliberations. This testimony provided valuable information to state legislators who were attempting to address homelessness across the state and ultimately helped promote major new appropriations and other legislative initiatives.
  • Californias very successful AB 2034 program (Burt & Anderson 2005; Mayberg, 2003) grew out of data from three initial pilot sites that showed significant reductions in time homeless and days hospitalized or incarcerated among homeless people with serious mental illness who participated in the programs whatever it takes funding approach. The evidence of success continued as the program expanded to 34 counties and was one of the key factors that prompted voter approval of Proposition 63 in 2005 and the consequent Mental Health Services Act in 2006, which is pouring major new service dollars into California communities.
  • The San Diego Police Department gathered data to show the cost of one arrest and booking of a chronic alcoholic homeless street person, in an effort to develop support for a new approach. When decision makers learned that the cost of just one arrest (about $1,100) was more than one-third higher than the cost of one month of outpatient treatment and housing, San Diegos Serial Inebriate Program was born (Burt et al., 2004). Its success was one of the factors leading to HUDs new Housing for People Who Are Homeless and Addicted to Alcohol program, now funding 11 grants to 10 communities.

Economic and Social Climate

All of the factors just discussed are affected by the economic and social climate of the local community or state environment. The economic environment will affect the overall prevalence of poverty within a community and may affect a localitys revenue base available to address poverty issues. A poor job climate will make it even more challenging for homeless households to obtain living wage employment. An expensive housing market will expand the gap between market rents and incomes of households that are trying to avoid homelessness or re-enter the housing market, while in a depressed housing market, landlords are more willing to negotiate rents and payment plans to repay arrearages. A positive economic environment can present positive opportunities for system change to end homelessness, such as funds to support innovative service models or the development of subsidized and/or supportive housing.

The social environment can have an equally powerful effect. If there is significant social awareness and public support for social causes in general and ending homelessness in particular, community leaders may be very receptive to pursuing an agenda for change. If the community is negatively inclined toward social issues, the political leaders may be completely opposed to funding or even supporting change. Similarly, if the community is mobilized around different community issues, it may be difficult to secure public support for system change to end homelessness.

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