Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Changing Homeless and Mainstream Service Systems: Essential Approaches to Ending Homelessness. Re-Orienting the Continuum of Care


If communities are really going to end homelessness in 10 years, everyone who now provides homeless assistance will have to change to varying degrees, and new participants will also have to join in the effort. One Portland informant described the process of reorienting their whole community toward ending homelessness as turning the ocean liner; another described the reality of how many small steps this takes:

First, all of us working on the 10-year plan had to decide what the right thing to do was. After weeks of discussion, our decision was to develop PSH that prioritizes the hardest-to-serve people. Then we had to convince providers that they should adopt these priorities as their own. Even after they were convinced in theory, it soon became clear that providers did not really know what the change would mean in practice. That is, their habits had not changed. In their program structures and client recruitment practices they were violating the principles they had agreed to without even knowing it. It has required constant working on it, explaining it, and training for it, even with convinced providers. In addition, we still had to help providers move forward with implementation in the form of getting a proposal together, finding the various pots of money, developing a project plan, etc. This included helping them understand how to use the various new funding sources and mechanisms that were being put in place.

The signs of system change in Portland/Multnomah County involve changes in ideas (coming to agreement on the right thing to do), changes in how money is used (the three-point funding structure with assistance to access each funding element), changes in power (new commitments of local elected officials and public agency heads), and changes in habits (new approaches to getting the right clients into the newly opened units).

Chicagos Conversion Process

The process of implementing a 10-year plan to end homelessness in Chicago also relied on major program-level change efforts. The Chicago Continuum of Care Governing Board adopted the plan in 2002, and the mayor endorsed it in early 2003 (Chicago Continuum of Care, n.d.). The plan required a complete paradigm shift in the ways that homeless programs operated and worked in relation to each other. The CoC developed detailed descriptions of the new program models that articulated expectations for program outcomes. Many homeless assistance agencies were active champions of the plan and embraced the concepts of change; however, they still needed significant technical assistance to shift from their current practices to new ways of delivering services. To help, the CoC developed a self-assessment tool that agencies could use to assess whether their programs were consistent with the plan. The tool could also be used to help agencies decide how they wanted to change and to develop a plan for implementing change at the board, staff, and client levels. The CoC also hosted many training workshops for each program type, which were intended to help staff acquire new skills and develop peer support networks to jointly navigate the process of change. Simultaneously, the city and CoC began a multi-year process of using the city and CoC-controlled grant resources to phase in change, starting with incentives and culminating in mandating compliance with the plan in order to access funding. For instance, within the first couple of years of plan implementation, the CoC reduced the number of shelter and transitional beds funded in order to support greater investment in prevention, permanent housing with short-term supports, and permanent supportive housing for people who are chronically disabled.

System change in Chicago is beginning to be recognized for changes in how money is spent (reallocation of city and Continuum resources to support the Plan), changes in ideas (a paradigm shift about the communitys ability to end homelessness), and changes in skills (retraining agency leadership and staff). The annual State of the Plan reports also document progress in building new permanent supportive housing units, among other process milestones.[5]  Over time the expectation is that habits will also change (realization of cross-system service delivery) and that the cumulative impact of these changes will be realized in reduced numbers of people who experience homelessness, shorter durations of homelessness, and improved individual housing and behavioral outcomes.

Southern New England Training for Developer/Service Provider Teams

Recognizing that production goals for new permanent supportive housing would never be met without expanding the pool of housing developers and service providers who could create and run PSH, the Corporation for Supportive Housings Southern New England office used THCH funding to create a training program to bring together potential partners and help them structure new projects. The training sought to change knowledge, skills, and ideas of appropriate ways to work together. The One Step Beyond Training Institute (OSB) began in 2004. It gets to the nitty-gritty of what it takes to develop PSH by training the agencies and people who will actually have to produce and operate it. Inspiration is also a part of this mix, as new players must be convinced to participate in PSH production if the goal of expanded PSH capacity is to be reached. OSB is designed to foster partnerships among housing developers and service providers, so that more organizations will get into the PSH business and those already in it will expand their capacity to develop and operate PSH. Each plan being developed involves collaborations among several agencies. The goal was for teams to have project plans and sites identified by the end of the training.

During OSBs second year, teams from Rhode Island included nonprofit housing developers for the first time. Their presence was a testament to system change in two senses. Getting these new players involved in PSH had been a major goal of THCH in Rhode Island. But it probably would not have happened, even with urging from THCH, if another change had not come first. Rhode Island Housing, the agency that controls HOME dollars, established new priorities that for the first time gave precedence to PSH development. If the nonprofit housing developers wanted HOME dollars, they were going to have to get involved in producing PSH. A power center, Rhode Island Housing, had changed the financial incentives, and changed behavior followed. Many of the teams that participated in OSB have since submitted funding proposals to state agencies, with considerable success.

The curriculum developed for OSB is enjoying continued life, as various CSH local offices are using it to stimulate new partnerships around the country. In Los Angeles, for instance, a training series using a curriculum based on OSB but modified for local conditions, called Opening New Doors, is about to begin a second year with a new set of partner teams. Teams from the first year are already writing applications to fund the projects they developed during the training.

View full report


"report.pdf" (pdf, 455.28Kb)

Note: Documents in PDF format require the Adobe Acrobat Reader®. If you experience problems with PDF documents, please download the latest version of the Reader®