Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Changing Homeless and Mainstream Service Systems: Essential Approaches to Ending Homelessness. Synthesis of Research Literature


System change has interested people in many disciplines, in part because it is by all accounts so hard to do and hard to sustain. Corporations and businesses care about system change because a poorly functioning corporate system means lower profits. The most successful approaches to assuring improved educational outcomes for the most disadvantaged children rely on changing educational systems, from individual schools to whole districts, through comprehensive school reforms (Borman et al., 2003). Helping the most disadvantaged and hardest-to-serve welfare recipients to get and retain jobs has required system changes involving welfare and workforce development agencies, and sometimes mental health, substance abuse, and other agencies (Martinson & Holcomb, 2002). Children- and family-serving agencies have long sought system change to increase the effectiveness of service delivery systems (Burt, Resnick, & Novick 1998; Melaville & Blank, 1991). Is it any wonder that in the homelessness arena we also find ourselves in need of guidance to move systems toward greater responsiveness?

Our assignment is to summarize research knowledge about changing community systems into configurations that promote the goal of ending homelessness. It is important to note at the outset that significantly less relevant literature exists on this topic than on others at the Symposium. A Google search of system change + homelessness produces 66,000 items, but only a handful are research  most of the rest are plans, or advice. The research on which we base much of this paper comes from HUD-sponsored projects on community-wide strategies to end chronic street homelessness (Burt et al., 2004) and prevent homelessness (Burt, Pearson, & Montgomery, 2005); a Corporation for Supportive Housing evaluation of a project called Taking Health Care Home (THCH) that is designed to change community systems to promote development of permanent supportive housing (Burt & Anderson, 2006); and two research syntheses offering blueprints for changing systems, one by HHSs Center for Mental Health Services (2003) and one by the Corporation for Supportive Housing (Greiff, Proscio, & Wilkins, 2003) that has been the basis for many presentations at Policy Academies. Most of the research has focused on permanent supportive housing to end homelessness for persons with disabilities who have been homeless for a long time. Yet system change efforts related to homelessness reach well beyond this population and these interventions. Therefore, we also incorporate examples from our own experience working with communities to make change happen.

We will address several aspects of system change based on research and written reports that have become available since 1998: (1) documenting system change itself and how it has been brought about, (2) documenting the effects of such change on preventing and ending homelessness, and (3) describing how communities have used a variety of databases and feedback mechanisms to give themselves the information they need to set targets and keep themselves on track to meet them. We will not be able to recommend best practices substantiated by a strong evidence base, but we will be able to present approaches and practices that are widely recommended and seem to be promising.

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