Thursday, April 27, 2017

They Couldn’t End Their Homelessness without It

British actor, Roger Daltrey, in one of the iconic American Express card commercials from 1985

How often do you find yourself without identification? The answer is, probably not that often. Most of us, in the words of the old American Express commercial, don’t leave home without it. This is why many find it surprising that over 10% of us do not have a government-issued photo ID. Not surprisingly, those without an ID tend to be poor, minorities, and/or elderly.  

Many of these same people manage to navigate life without an ID. However, ending a person’s homelessness can be challenging, if that person does not have some type of government issued identification, and cannot afford to get one. It seems that to paraphrase the same commercial, you can’t end your homelessness without it.

About six weeks ago, Daniel and Karla*, two neighbors who had experienced homelessness in the past, found themselves in a pickle. They were both living in permanent supportive housing, funded by a Federal grant. The agency which had received the grant ceased to operate, but our grantee, CitySquare, was prepared to keep the residents in housing. Daniel and Karla each had to present a government issued ID (at least a birth certificate), but neither of them had one. What were they to do?

About four weeks ago, Abraham was experiencing homelessness. He was determined to find a job, so he could become housed. He knew that he would need a government issued photo ID to get a job, and that to get the photo ID, he needed a birth certificate. He had obtained a birth certificate with the help of our partner, The Stewpot, but alas he could not find it. (It is difficult to keep all your documents and valuables in place, when you don’t have a home!) He would have to wait an entire year to be eligible for this help again. What was he to do?

Just three weeks ago, Richard was experiencing homelessness. CitySquare was helping him get everything in order, so he could apply for a Dallas Housing Authority voucher. He had a driver’s license, but it had expired. Without renewing his license, he would not be able to apply for a voucher. What was he to do?

Fortunately, about two years ago, through surveys of clients and service providers, MDHA had identified a variety of needs (beyond housing and supportive services), that Dallas’ homeless population faced, in their struggle to end their homelessness. One of these needs was critical documents, such as government issued identification. These needs may not be covered through existing federal, state and local government grants, that fund programs for the homeless.

Thus, with the help of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, the MDHA Flex Fund was born. The idea was simple. A minor but impactful need, such as the lack of a birth certificate or photo ID, impedes a client from (making progress in) ending his or her homelessness. The Flex Fund pays for it. That’s all there is to it.

That is how we helped Daniel, Karla, Abraham and Richard. Their case managers submitted a simple one page form. The form asks for the client’s information, what the client needs (including cost and vendor), articulation of how this will help the client end his or her homelessness, and an explanation of why other resources (including the client’s) cannot provide (for) it.
A classic Shavon Moore selfie
Shavon Moore, MDHA’s Continuum of Care Resource Manager, reviewed each request, approved it, and provided payment directly to the vendor. In fact, as is often the case with critical documents, in Daniel, Karla and Abraham’s cases, Shavon could quickly order the documents and pay for them online. Once they arrived, the case managers picked them up from the MDHA Offices.

Research shows that ending a person’s homelessness, quickly and permanently, is not just the right thing to do; it is the most cost effective thing to do. How cost effective is it to end a person’s homelessness with the help of the Flex Fund, specifically? The numbers speak for themselves. The cost of helping Daniel and Karla remain housed, Abraham pursue a job, and Richard become eligible for a housing voucher was… $120.75. No, not $120.75 each; $120.75 total. Now, that is not a bad return on investment!

* All client names have been changed, to protect their privacy.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Who am I? Why am I here?


One of the most misunderstood moments of political history is the moment that Admiral James Stockdale opened his remarks at the 1992 vice presidential debate with these words. Arguably, of the three men on the stage, he had the most impressive resume, most of it in service and unimaginable sacrifice for his country. However, he had struggled to define himself, or at least make well known his definition of himself as a political actor.

This is why Stockdale opened with these words. He wanted to address just that issue. Unfortunately, all most people remember is the soundbite, which combined with our obsession with youth and looks, caused most people to only remember the question, and totally misunderstand the context of it.

If you think about the question itself, it is one that each individual and each organization must answer. It is a question that seems to fit this time of year, too. Spring (in the Northern Hemisphere) is all about rebirth and renewal, as the world awakes from the slumber of winter. Fittingly, the two Abrahamic traditions that use a solar or partially solar calendar, observe holidays that celebrate their origin stories, as these faiths answer Stockdale’s question.

This is why I love site visits. Now, if you work for a non-profit, you may have just fallen off your chair, and if you don’t, you could be forgiven for not knowing what on earth I am talking about. When a non-profit asks for funding, often funders will ask to come in for a site visit, to see what that non-profit does, rather than just reading a written grant request. It can be stressful, and in some cases, that might be an understatement.

So, why do I love site visits? Even the best organization, working in the service of the most important cause, can fall into the monotony of the day to day work. A site visit causes an organization, and individuals within that organization, to stop and reflect on why they do what they do. Ideally, we should always be ready to answer Stockdale’s question, but to borrow Dr. Samuel Johnson’s phrase, a site visit can concentrate the mind wonderfully.
Ian Redford (playing Dr. Samuel Johnson) in A Dish of Tea with Dr. Johnson
(Courtesy of Bob Workman)
Now, some funders are clearer and some funders are less clear, regarding what they are looking for on their site visit. United Way of Metropolitan Dallas stands out for their clarity in that sense, and serves as a model for others. Here is how a United Way volunteer cut to the chase, on what they are looking to learn when they pay you a visit, “Be on point about why you are requesting the funds, what you will do with the funds, and why you will be successful with those funds.” In other words, what is the need, what is the solution, and what evidence do you have that the solution will successfully address that need?

On Monday, we have the privilege of sitting down with our friends from United Way, and answering these questions regarding the MDHA Flex Fund. I have to admit, I think this is easier with the Flex Fund than with other programs, because of its beautiful simplicity.

Dallas’ homeless population faces a variety of minor but impactful needs, beyond housing and supportive services, that impede them from (making progress in) ending their homelessness. The Flex Fund pays for (solutions to) these needs. We have research and practice from other communities, not to mention the last 20 months in our community that shows the concrete impact of such a program, in the lives of hundreds of people.  
Marsha, Family Gateway
Sarah’s story, which we have told in this blog before, is a typical example. Sarah and her daughter Carol were homeless. With the help of their Family Gateway case manager, Marsha, they obtained a housing voucher, and found an apartment. The landlord required payment of an administrative fee of $149, prior to move in. Their only income being inconsistent child support and SSI, they couldn’t afford it. They were stuck.

Fortunately, their story has a happy ending. Marsha, put in a request to the Flex Fund, it paid the landlord the required administrative fee of $149, and Sarah and Carol moved in to their new apartment. Sarah loves having a place to call home, and it is much easier to care for Carol, who has a disability, in an apartment of their own. Their homelessness ended.

One component United Way added this grant cycle, which I was particularly excited about, was what they call a “visual client flow”. This useful exercise helps the service provider, get out of their organizational comfort zone and vantage point, and look at the program through the eyes of the client. (Click through to see what that looks like.) This is tremendously important, because at the end of the day, it reminds us of our ultimate answer to Stockdale’s question, “Who am I? Why am I here?” We are the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, and we are here to end homelessness for real people, just like we did for Sarah.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Faith, Hope and Home II

Rev. Jonathan Grace, CitySquare
leading an opening prayer
On March 30, 2017, we held our second Faith Hope and Home event, in Austin Street Center's beautiful chapel. The evening was led by our very own Rebecca Cox. It featured: Josh Cogan of Outlast Youth, Teresa Keenan of Incarnation House, Rev. Heather Mustain, of Wilshire Baptist Church, Leah Parker, of St. Paul United Methodist Church, and Mark Pierce, of the Dallas Independent School District.

Mark Pierce, DISD
Mark, Teresa, and Josh talked about the evolution of school and out of school time drop in centers, how helpful they have been to youth, and the need for more such centers. Rev. Heather and Leah shared how their congregations participate in the Room in the Inn program. This program allows congregations to host pre-screened persons experiencing homelessness in their house of worship for a night, break bread with them, practice fellowship, and help them become part of the community. They encouraged other congregations to follow in their footsteps. A vigorous and informative Q&A session followed. Charletra Sharp, of the City of Dallas, closed out the evening, inviting those who wanted to roll up their sleeves and continue this work on the systems level, to join the MDHA CoC General Assembly's new Faith Collaborations Committee.
 

Is your congregation ready to engage in work that not only helps the homeless, but will really move the needle on ending homelessness? Contact us or any of the above speakers, and we will hook you up! (If you don't know how to contact one of them, we can help with that too.)

Saturday, April 8, 2017

With a Little Help from Our Friends

Opening Scene of Top Gun

Recently, we blogged about Becoming a Top Gun Homeless Response System. The mental image you get from watching film of a dogfight can be deceiving. You might think this is the ultimate combat scenario that involves two people alone squaring off against each other. Not so; just ask any pilot. He or she is just the tip of the spear; the spear itself being the ground crew, who can be quite numerous. Without everyone working together, and each person doing their part properly, even the Top Gun is rendered useless.

https://www.usich.gov/resources/uploads/asset_library/USICH_OpeningDoors_Amendment2015_FINAL.pdf
 
An effective homeless response system also depends on many different people, working together, each carrying out their functions properly. Indeed, two of the most important underlying themes of Opening Doors, the national strategic plan to end homelessness, are that we must do our work properly, i.e. follow evidence-based practices, and work together, i.e. not as disparate organizations in an uncoordinated environment, but as one unified homeless response system.

Getting involved in our local
Continuum of Care (CoC) is a great way you can help our homeless response system become a Top Gun. A CoC is a regional or local planning body that coordinates housing and services (funding) for homeless families and individuals. MDHA is the designated lead agency for our CoC organization.

Our CoC General Assembly meets once a month, and anyone can attend, learn about the work, and pitch in to help. The Assembly usually meets at
United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, on the fourth Tuesday of the month at 9.00am. Check our website calendar for exact details. Once you get your feet wet, you can join one of our CoC committees, where much of the hard work of systems change takes place. We look forward to seeing you there!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Broken

Today, at the invitation of Dr. Theresa Daniel, County Commissioner, District 1, and MDHA board member, I was honored to deliver the invocation at the Dallas County Commissioners Court meeting. Here is what I shared with them:

I wanted to thank Dr. Daniel for inviting me to give the invocation today, but more than that, I wanted to thank her for her ongoing passion and dedication in standing up for our homeless brothers and sisters. 


Thinking about homelessness in Dallas, I was reminded of a fascinating thing the Bible tells us about a legendary artifact shrouded in mystery, the Ark of the Covenant.

Now, if you have seen Indiana Jones (spoiler alert), with all the great special effects, we never really get to see too much of what is inside the Ark. 
 
 
Fortunately, the Bible gives it away. Among the objects in there, the two most prominent were the tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. But wait, did I say two, or perhaps four… Because, according to the Talmud, both sets of tablets, the ones Moses breaks, and the replacement set God gave him, were housed in the Ark

(As an aside, here Moses teaches us, that like every smart Jew, you should always take out a warranty. You just never know!)

Now, the Ark eventually disappears from the biblical narrative. Hence, both the Ancient Rabbis, and their modern co-religionist, Steven Spielberg, get to imagine what happened to it. Let's take that one step further. 
 
 
Imagine YOU get into the huge warehouse that is shown in the last scene of Raiders. You find the Ark and the contents we have spoken of, the two sets of the Tablets, broken and whole. You are obviously excited. This easily would be one of the greatest findings in human history. And as befits any such event, you hold the inevitable press conference. 

Now, strain your imagination to the absurd. Imagine a reporter asks, "Hey, I get that the whole tablets are important, but who cares about those broken tablets? We should just toss them, and they definitely should NOT be housed in the Ark." What would be your reaction?

Well, if it was me, after I picked my jaw up off the floor, I would explain that both sets of Tablets would equally be among the two most cherished findings in human history. These are not just stone tablets. These are THE tablets. And that it is why, as the Ancient Rabbis remind us, לוחות ושברי לוחות מונחים בארון, the whole tablets AND the broken tablets are both housed in the Ark. 

This serves as a great metaphor for homelessness. The history of the modern homelessness crisis has seen two major approaches to solving this societal ill. One, often referred to as "housing readiness", implies that if you are homeless, there is something fundamentally broken about you. You, therefore, must be made whole again first, through a lengthy, demanding, complicated process. Only at the end of this process are you deemed worthy of housing. Clear evidence has shown that this approach does not really work for most people, yet it persists. Old habits die hard. 
 

The second approach is referred to as "Housing First", and it is rooted in the philosophy that everyone is fundamentally worthy of housing, as a basic human right. It favors housing the homeless as quickly as possible, with two conditions only, abide by your lease, and meet regularly with a case manager. It offers wrap around services, so the housed individuals can address whatever brokenness they have, whatever challenges they are dealing with, at their own direction. Clear evidence has shown that this approach really works for most people (in Dallas, it has a 95% success rate), and so it has been embraced by the consensus of scholars, the Federal Government and local governments across the country. 

The message of the legend of the Ark is instructive in this sense. It reminds us that whatever brokenness might manifest, the whole tablets AND the broken tablets are housed in the Ark. Yes, even the broken ones. They too are worthy. 

That's a good thing, because do you know who else is broken? I am and you are. The wholeness of the other set of tablets is just an aspiration in human life. We are all, each and every one of us, in our own individual ways, broken. And yet each one of us, housed and homeless, rich and poor, materially successful and those that are not, deserve the same basic dignity, a home. שלוחות ושברי לוחות מונחים בארון, for the whole tablets and the broken tablets are both housed within the Ark. 

Monday, March 27, 2017

Schrödinger’s Homeless Cat*

The Thought Experiment

Perhaps the most famous quantum physics experiment is the thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s Cat. Erwin Schrödinger disagreed with a model of quantum mechanics. That model held that a particle exists in multiple states until observed. He used his thought experiment to disprove that model.

Imagine a sealed box containing a cat, a bottle of poison and a radioactive sample. The box is rigged, so once the sample has decayed, the bottle shatters, which kills the cat. Opening the box will allow us to detect if this has happened yet or not, but what about when the box is still sealed? According to the model Schrödinger was trying to disprove, the cat would be both alive and dead at the same time! Since that is obviously impossible, that model cannot be true. QED.

Now what remains true, and what undergirds the entire thought experiment, is that until we open the box, we don’t know if our furry feline friend is alive or dead. This is a perfect analogy for two different problems MDHA has been working on for the last two years.

(Courtesy of NobelPrize.org)
The Homeless Count

In early 2015, MDHA told the community, that regarding the number of unsheltered homeless persons counted in the annual homeless count, we had this type of Schrödinger’s Cat problem. We knew there were unsheltered homeless, and we were counting them every year, but we could not be confident we were finding everyone that could be found. We had what was, at least partially, a sealed box.

We needed to improve our count methodology, and we needed more volunteers. We explained that the experiences of other communities showed that you needed a ratio of 1:1, i.e. one volunteer per one unsheltered person, to find and count everyone.  We suggested that likely there were about 1,000 unsheltered persons in our jurisdiction, Dallas and Collin Counties.

Indeed, in 2016, in our first count conducted under our new counting regime, we had about 750 volunteers, and we found about 750 unsheltered homeless persons. (In 2015 we had found only about half as many.) We still were not able to cover all the routes we had carefully plotted in 2016, so we continued to suspect that we were not finding everyone who could be found.

In 2017, we set our target at 1,000 volunteers, and we ended up with about 1,375. We covered 99.5% of our routes, and we found 1,087 unsheltered persons. The box was unsealed, the cat was fully in view, and our two-year-old prediction had proven true. This is why in the 2017 State of Homeless Address we suggested that this number be the benchmark for our work moving forward.
 
The Homeless Management Information System

There was one more Schrödinger’s Cat problem we pointed out in early 2015. Communities in the United States are required under Federal Law to maintain Homeless Management Information Systems, commonly known as HMIS. Organizations like MDHA are tasked with operating these systems. Most organizations receiving Federal funding for housing programs for the homeless are required to report crucial data into these systems. This is not an issue of bureaucratic compliance. The only way we can and do help individual organizations and the community at large improve in our fight against homelessness is through collecting this data, analyzing it, and using it to drive improvement.

The problem was that in early 2015, only 3%(!) of the shelter beds available to Dallas’ homeless population were reported into the system. The data reported into the system from Federally funded housing programs is tremendously valuable, but it is data about the “back-end” of a person’s journey from homelessness to housing. The shelter environment is the “front-end” of homelessness, and we had very little data about it. It was more analogous to Schrödinger’s Cat, than the annual count ever was. In this regard, the cat was 97% sealed within the box.
 
 
During the last State of the Homeless Address, we had the audience go through our own thought experiment to drive this point home. We asked everyone to stand up to represent 100% of the homeless population. Then we gradually had sections of the audience sit down, leaving only a small section standing. We explained that we could not possibly, with a straight face, contend that the data we collect about the small section standing, was representative of the entire audience.

Already back in 2015, we stated that one of the most important things Dallas needed to do was move from 11(!) separate data systems to a single open state-of-the-art HMIS system, with at least 86% of shelter beds reported into it. The Federal Government does not really consider data from a system that does not have, at least 50%, to have any meaningful validity. Only at 86% does it consider the data to be comprehensive and reliable enough to award the community points on its collective grant application for homeless housing programs. The Federal Government cut the funding for homeless housing programs in Dallas twice over the last few years, because of this very problem. That cut did not affect the shelters; it affected the housing programs.    

 
We have been working on this problem for the last two years, early on partnering with PCCI and now Pieces Tech to develop that single open state-of-the-art HMIS for Dallas. In the meantime, we have increased the number of shelter beds reported into HMIS from 3% almost eleven-fold, but that is still just 32%. We are excited to be on the cusp of transitioning to the Pieces Tech HMIS, and even more excited that more service providers will be signing on to be a part of it. We are determined, this year, 2017, to break that 86% mark, and finally bid Schrödinger’s Cat adieu. We owe our homeless neighbors nothing less.   

* MDHA wishes to assure readers that no cats were harmed during the writing of this blog post, though one rabbit gave me a dirty look.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Becoming a Top Gun Homeless Response System

In the opening scene of Top Gun, we are introduced to the hero of the movie, known by the call sign Maverick, as he accomplishes an incredible feat, trolling an enemy pilot:


It is so quick, that it is difficult to see how Maverick did this. So, how did he?

“When two pilots faced off in a dogfight, the pilot who was able to observe the variables, orient his aircraft to the best possible position relative to his opponent, decide on the best course of action to engage his opponent, and act rapidly on that decision would win the fight.” (Mark Bonchek and Chris Fussell, Decision Making, Top Gun Style; Emphases mine – DSG.)

What the fictional Maverick uses is a conceptual decision making framework originated by the real larger than life character, U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd. This framework is known as the OODA Loop, because, as illustrated by Maverick, it involves four steps, Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. Boyd believed that this framework could be useful beyond the military, and it is seen as particularly helpful in competition in the business world. I believe, that it is applicable to our fight to end homelessness, too.

You can probably reflect on different situations, where you have engaged in decision making, and have used some or all the elements Maverick used. The extent to which you have been successful may have depended on your adherence to the OODA Loop framework.

You could, for instance, observe carefully, orient yourself to your situation very well, and even decide on the right course of action, but then due to various obstacles, not act. Conversely, my father’s admonition from when I was a child, still echoes in my head. To my pleading, “But I thought,” he would respond, “No, you didn’t think!” In those cases, I decided and then acted, without observing and orienting.

So, how does this apply to ending homelessness? If you think about our new MDHA Homeless Response System Community Dashboard, it gives us the perfect tool to make decisions in a way that would make Colonel Boyd proud. It allows us to observe all of the performance metrics or variables related to our number one job, as a homeless response system, housing the homeless. We can then orient ourselves into the best possible position, by drilling down into the data, and addressing three simple questions:
  • How are we doing in housing the homeless?
  • What is helping us house the homeless?
  • What is impeding us from housing the homeless?
 

Once we have carefully observed and oriented ourselves, we can decide what corrective action we need to take to do a better job. Then, we follow through, and take that corrective action.
 

That the most important component in the real world is action, is a given. However, it is the Dashboard that allows our action to be much more well informed than ever before, and that is the true game-changer. The Dashboard allows our action to be guided by genuine data-driven evidence-informed decisions, born of careful observation and orientation.  With that, we can win this dogfight and defeat our foe, homelessness in Dallas and Collin Counties.