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Exploring Home, Together: Building Systems (audiocast)

This audiocast, hosted by Veronica Mills, focuses on Objective 1.1 of the federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness. Her guest is regional coordinator Robert Pulster.


Veronica: Welcome to Exploring Home, Together, an audiocast where we talk about strategies to end homelessness. I am your host, Veronica Mills. I’m with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Last summer, we released a revised Federal Strategic Plan—called Home, Together—to prevent and end homelessness across America. The five-year plan is made up of eight objectives to help communities make homelessness a rare, brief, and one-time experience for their neighbors.

In this series, we’ll be walking through the objectives in the plan one by one to help you build your coordinated community response to ending homelessness. Today, we are exploring Objective 1.1. That objective calls for collaboratively building lasting systems that end homelessness.  

Joining me today is my colleague Robert Pulster. Bob is a regional coordinator with USICH who works with communities in the northeast, southwest, and the heartland.

Bob, why don’t you start by giving us your summary of that first objective? How do you explain it to communities?

Bob: It’s really about coming together behind a common vision. In this objective, there are some key components to ensure that homelessness is a rare experience. I’ll focus on three that I think are really important. 

First, using a Housing First approach because we know that this is the foundation of continuing to move forward. Housing First helps us to understand people as unique individuals and create person-centered solutions. Using Housing First as the guiding philosophy of the work is a key factor in the progress we are seeing across the country.  Most notably, in our work with Veterans.

Second, on a practical level, systems work also requires a shared vision. Using the USICH criteria and benchmarks, which defines what it means to end homelessness, ensures that the community has a common vision.   Consequently, we have seen communities across the country using the C&B as their roadmap to build momentum and align activities, policies and priorities.     

And finally, when we talk about systems, we are discussing how we do the work and how we change the way we do business.  This means moving from an agency and program centered environment to one that is more person-centered and holistic.

This a bit of a mind shift, right, where providers and other stakeholders seek to reduce fragmentation and break down programmatic silos.  This goes beyond just making referrals.  We know that silos often result in a very difficult environment for people to navigate in getting the help they need.

As we work in complex systems when we really look at our interconnectedness we can see new insights and discoveries. This will likely lead us to innovate, to develop new interventions, and to make policy shifts that will dramatically change the system in the most effective way.

In Miami, the COC and community partners made a strong commitment to come together and work toward ending Veteran homelessness. The used the criteria and benchmarks to constantly evaluate the effectiveness of their system.  For over a year, I watched the community stay together and stay focused – never giving up, trying new methods, involving new partners, so they could get the job done.  Now, Miami is a city that has ended Veteran homelessness.

Veronica: You’re talking about coming together as a community, but who exactly needs to come together?

Bob: The homeless service providers, for sure. But it can’t be them alone.  We need to recruit new and strong partners among an array of stakeholders from across multiple sectors.   

Homelessness is a community-wide concern and requires a community response—so we need elected officials from all levels of government, and leaders from philanthropy, health care and hospitals, academic institutions, workforce development, child welfare, among others that can commit to the shared vision, and bring resources to the table and help drive progress.

And, it is very important to include people with lived experience in the work. Their perspective is key to understanding how our systems can do better. They will keep the conversation honest and the process accountable.  We are seeing this kind of involvement being played out in many communities work on youth homelessness and it is amazing to see young people be genuine and engaged partners guiding our process every step of the way. 

Veronica: When you bring those people into a room, what do they need to talk about right from the start?

Bob: That’s a great question. I’d say three things are really critical here.

First, people need to be clear about the process or how they going to work together to get things done and get results. This means having a tight governance structure that embraces a common vision through a strategic plan that everyone is on record supporting.   

Second, with all the partners present, discuss what your data is telling you. By understanding the size and scope of specific situations that you are trying to address, you’ll ensure that you are working toward solving a problem that everyone can see. 

And third, set ambitious goals. Let’s look at Veteran homelessness. We know that ending Veterans homelessness is possible – over 70 communities have met the federal criteria and benchmarks.   Congress has provided the resources. HUD, VA, and USICH have offered great know-how guidance including the criteria and benchmarks. So, setting an ambitious goal to end Veteran homelessness by a certain date that works for your community will unite your partners and foster a sense of focus and urgency to get it done.

Veronica: You make it sound easy, Bob, but we know this is hard work. What do communities need to be thinking about as they begin working toward their ambitious goals?

Bob: Ok, a few things stand out to me here.

Building systems is hard work. It requires moving from our usual ways of doing business. And, as folks understand, the foundation for this work is building trust by really getting to know all the partners and being honest with each other—not about just what is working but also about what is not working. In Boston, when it was taking a long time to connect Veterans to services, they developed a model to bring Veterans together in one place in one morning at an event called the “Surge.” They had all the necessary partners in the same room – VA, the Housing Authority, SSVF, city and state officials, and made the right connections right on the spot to immediately connect Veterans to housing.

Another thing we need to focus on is ongoing training and support for staff to continue to feel comfortable in building up these new models. That requires the support and encouragement of each agency’s Board of Directors and Executive Directors. Sometimes, systems work requires some rethinking of organizational boundaries. 

Building the system is work for sure, but we also need to acknowledge that sustaining that system may be even more difficult. Focusing on change management needs be an ongoing priority.             

And finally, I can’t forget how important it is to return frequently to look at your data to check performance and to recalibrate, as needed.

Veronica: It seems like public and political will is really important. As we close out our conversation, what should communities be thinking about as they try to bring everyone on board?

Bob: Sure thing. In the communities that are having success, communication and education across multiple stakeholders is most important.

And, I said elected officials can be really helpful. So, invite your electeds to be part of your work. Have them sign up for the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, if they haven’t already. And take the time to build relationships in the community at large.  Be visible at city and county meetings, serve as the subject matter expert and inform the community dialogue on preventing and ending homelessness.

It is so critical that we continue to inform the public about what we know works and what is going on at the local level that is advancing those best practices. And finally, another great way to get everyone on board is to celebrate your successes.

In New Orleans, the CoC has published a regular newsletter informing all community partners about their progress and calling out individuals and agencies that have made significant contributions to achieving their goals. It is so important to recognize the individuals who are doing the real hard work of housing individuals and providing the support they need to stay in their home.    

Veronica: Thanks, Bob. As we wrap up, are we missing anything? What else should people know about Objective 1.1?

Bob: I think Objective 1.1 is a very broad, strategic effort. And it gets to how we do the work and the way we do the work. And how we work better together. It’s not going to happen quickly. It’s going to take some time to pull these partnerships together. And to test the relationships and solidify new ways of doing business. But it’s so important to set the foundation to make homelessness a rare experience. 

Veronica: I appreciate you sitting down with me today, Bob. If communities have questions about how to implement Objective 1.1, can they reach out to you?

Bob: Absolutely! If you go to the USICH website under “Contact Us”, you’ll find a link to our list of regional coordinators. I’m there as well as our great national initiatives team. Feel free to contact the coordinator for your state. We look forward to working with you.

Veronica: Thanks so much for Exploring Home, Together with us. Post any questions you have about the plan on: Facebook @USICH and Twitter @USICHgov, and we’ll try to answer them in future episodes.  

If you liked this episode, please share it with a friend. 

Thanks for listening!