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Ending Family Homelessness Requires Changes in the Ways We Do Business

August 07, 2012

Some of the nation’s smartest thinkers about the problem of ending homelessness for families who are involved with the child welfare system are working on solutions. Last week, I was invited to sit in on a research symposium that brought them all together. These families often face complex challenges: Extreme poverty, substance abuse, mental illness, criminal justice system involvement – things that can make it extremely difficult to keep your family stable and raise happy and healthy children.  Fortunately, the systems responsible for both the services and housing these families may receive are forging new partnerships across the thick walls of government silos that all too often inhibit effective collaboration.

Chief among the challenges, however, may be the absence of a sufficient supply of affordable housing.  While there are many entitlement programs designed to help families stay together and healthy – things such as Medicaid, child welfare services, Head Start, etc. – housing, as an entitlement, is not among them.  Although homelessness is often associated with families that end up involved with the child welfare system, there is no guarantee that these families will get access to one of the things they may need most to stabilize – a place to call home. 

To forge new solutions, the Departments of Housing & Urban Development and Health & Human Services are taking much the same approach we ask every homeless or child welfare involved family to take when contemplating how to improve what seem to be overwhelming circumstances:

  • Identify your strengths, align those strengths with the approaches you know work,
  • combine forces to increase your capacity to tackle your problems, and
  • begin at a shared starting point that offers the best pathway to long-term success.

At a systems level, this means aligning the housing resources HUD brings to the table with HHS’ child welfare resources.  It means bringing together at one table the best of what each system is learning works most effectively and efficiently to maximize the resources that are available.  It means challenging inefficient or ineffective responses that have become all too familiar, and testing new – and promising approaches like coordinated entry, progressive engagement, and rapid re-housing.  However, like most people, systems don’t easily give up familiar behaviors and practices.  Incentives that stimulate change are essential, and once the change process has been set in motion, positive reinforcement is crucial to long-term success.

For the philanthropic sector, being part of this change process with partners at HUD and HHS means sitting alongside them and learning about where the greatest potentials for success really lie.  It means challenging assumptions about what we think has worked in the past – and what some of us may be continuing to fund.  It means aligning our energy, our resources, and our passion with the process of systems change.  

Changing the way we do business has the potential to improve outcomes for families who are homeless across each of our communities.  Good stewardship of the resources that have been entrusted to us requires nothing less.

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