Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Opinion: The Lessons of Unsheltered Homelessness for a Week by David S. Gruber

As a reader of this blog, you know that the encampment under I-45 has been on our minds lately. We are actively working with the residents of this tent city to connect them to housing. Now, I don’t mean to scare you, but you may see many more similar encampments up now for the next seven days, not only here in Dallas, but all over the world. Why? Jews the world over, celebrate Sukkot or the Festival of Tabernacles. During this festival, Jewish Law commands Jews to eat, drink and sleep in temporary structures, much like the ones under I-45, for seven days.

What is the rationale behind this idea? The Bible addresses a nation, which is made up mostly of farmers. As autumn arrives, and they gather the fruits of their labor, they are liable to attribute all of their success to themselves. And since not everyone’s crops are successful, those who have been successful might look down on those who have not, and attribute their failure entirely to them. Especially in the Land of Israel, which depends on rainfall for the watering of crops attributing success or failure to one’s own actions makes little sense. And so, everyone is commanded to go out of their homes, and expose themselves equally to the elements for an extended period of time, to remind themselves of how little control they really have over their own existence.

Now, why not just teach this as a lesson, or have everyone expose themselves to the elements for an hour or two? Well, because it probably would not work. The only way to truly grasp how things work is to really experience them. More importantly, the only way to develop empathy for those for whom things may not have worked that well, is to walk a mile in their shoes, or live a week in their tent, as the case may be.

Today’s American economy is vastly different from the economy of Iron Age Palestine. Very few of us are farmers, and those that are do not have to depend on natural irrigation only. However, it is still true that while hard work is important, much of success and failure in our world is due to God, or karma, or luck, take your pick. The universal message of Sukkot in our globalized economy is that we should not forget this. The difference between us and those folks under I-45 is not that great, after all.  

Thursday, September 17, 2015

MDHA Board Chair Goes the Extra Yard

Britton Banowsky, Executive Director, CFP Foundation and MDHA Board Chair
(Courtesy of Jake Dean, Dallas Business Journal)
Hearty congratulations to our Board Chair, Britton Banowsky, as he assumes his new position as Executive Director of the CFP Foundation! You can check out this important organization at http://www.collegefootballplayoff.com/foundation. As a former assistant principal, I love the fact that their primary cause is Extra Yard for Teachers, which “strives to honor, celebrate, inspire and empower great teachers”. Check out this cool tagline: “It’s time we go the extra yard for those who have gone the extra yard for us.” Make sure you mark your calendars for Extra Yard for Teachers Awareness Week - October 5 – 10, 2015. You can check out an interview with Britton, from July, when his new appointment was announced, on the Dallas Business Journal website: http://www.bizjournals.com/dallas/blog/morning_call/2015/07/banowsky-named-executive-director-of-the-college.html. Good luck in your new position, Britton!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

We Can't Have Our Cake and Eat It Too

Last night I attended a fascinating event put on by a few wonderful organizations here in Dallas, led by United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, around "The Raising of America - Early Childhood and the Future of Our Nation". It included a screening of excerpts of this thought provoking series, and a panel discussion of experts.

Susan Hoff, Chief Strategy Officer of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas
(Photo Courtesy of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas)
One of the concepts they discussed is the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) score. In short, more adverse childhood experiences, the higher the score. Research shows that the higher the score, the more likely it is that the individual will suffer adverse long term effects across all areas of life. This has to do mainly with the influence of stressors such as poverty, food insecurity, housing instability on the development of the brain of the child. It is no surprise that the President of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Robert Block, has stated, "Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today."

Another important idea discussed is that social and economic stressors influence children on the epigenetic or genetic expression level. This happens already in utero, and once again has the potential to effect children for years to come. Give children a positive environment to grow up in - get good epigenetic results. Give children a negative environment to grow up in - get bad epigenetic results.

We, in America, contend that everyone should be treated equally. We like to believe that we can and should expect everyone to thrive, and that if one does not, it is their fault. So, it does not matter where you grow up. You should be able pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

It should not matter that we, as a country, have stopped investing in the working poor. It should not matter that we have put in place policies that have eroded the middle class. It should not matter that we have condemned 25% of American children to grow up in poverty, lacking the necessities they need to thrive.

Right, because that makes sense... We should definitely be able to have our cake, not invest in what we need to, and eat it too, expect the results that would come about had we invested in what we needed too. Right?

Well, no, wrong. This does not make sense, and never really made sense. Now, science shows how little sense this actually makes. The question, as Susan Hoff, United Way Chief Strategy Officer, posed it last night, is: Do we have the will to do what we KNOW we need to do? Or will we continue, as we talked about in the last blog post, to waste the vast human potential that we have in this great city, and across our nation?

Only time will tell.

Monday, September 14, 2015

What a Waste!

How much human potential is wasted by the fact that still today, the place you are born, who raises you, how much money they have, and so many other circumstances beyond the individual's control, limit their ability to live meaningful lives, and contribute to society on par with what they could?

Think about homelessness, as an example. How much human potential is robbed from individuals and from society, because if you are homeless, our society looks down on you? Just think of the icons of the three Abrahamic faiths. Moses, shortly after he is born, and again after he slays the Egyptian, experiences homelessness. Jesus is born into an episode of homelessness. The Muslim calendar begins as Mohammed experiences a period of homelessness.

What are the authors of these stories telling us by deliberately including this circumstance in each story? I believe they are telling us, that your contribution to the world cannot and should not be limited by your circumstances or your station in life. After all, what an immense loss the world would have suffered, without these three influential figures making their mark on the world.

Let us resolve to learn the lessons of our ancestors. That is the only way our descendants will not look back on us, shake their heads ruefully, and say, "What a waste..."

Why I Give to United Way?

United Way of Metropolitan Dallas (UWMD) invests in Income, Education and Health, and is making measurable progress in these three areas. 

My organization, MDHA, leads the development of a homeless response system, that will make homelessness in Dallas and Collin Counties, rare, brief and non-recurring. How does that connect to what UWMD is doing?

Picture this: It is August 2015. There are tents and other temporary structures, that have formed a tent city under I-45. Our multi-agency Outreach Taskforce has been working with the folks living there for two or three months, getting to know them, building rapport, and connecting them to housing solutions. The Taskforce knows they are making progress, but it is a process. 

Then, our VP, Rebecca, sees something she has never seen in any of her previous visits - a one year old baby. She immediately calls our CEO, Cindy, and they, being moms themselves, decide then and there, that this baby is not sleeping outside of a home that night. Rebecca asks the mom a few simple questions, and Rebecca discovers that the baby's mom has a housing voucher and an apartment waiting for her. So, why on earth is she in a tent? Well, she can't afford the $45 application fee for the apartment. And the program that got her the voucher is funded by a grant, that does not fund application fees. So, she is stuck!

Fortunately, MDHA, with the help of UWMD, had created the MDHA Flex Fund. This fund is designed to pay for minor, but impactful expenses, that can and do make a huge difference. So, Cindy had a $45 check for the application fee immediately cut. Rebecca ran back to the office to pick up the check and deliver it. The problem was solved. Mom and baby were housed. 

Think about the ripple effects of that $45. In the business world we would call it the ROI, the return on investment. Better still, think about what happens without that $45. Without that $45, that baby does not have a home. Without a home, how do you escape poverty? Without a home, how do you raise a healthy child? Without a home, how can you and your child concentrate on a kid's number one job, learning? That $45 gets you the package deal - Income, Education and Health. 

That is why I run a United Way campaign at our office. That is why I give to UWMD. That is why I call on you to give to UWMD. So, so do what I do. Figure out how much you can give, and then give that much, plus 10%. On behalf of UWMD, on behalf of MDHA and on behalf of the baby and her mom, thank you for giving. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

De Jong’s Message – Treat Individuals Like… Individuals!

Dr. De Jong
Last week we had the privilege of hosting the renowned Dr. Iain De Jong for a few training sessions, as well as another installment of our series of Hard Conversations. MDHA and Metrocare Services, who co-sponsored the visit with us, also had the chance to consult with him and gain from his wisdom and experience. Dr. De Jong is the President and CEO of OrgCode Consulting. He is a well-known innovator and passionate advocate for those experiencing homelessness. He developed the Vulnerability Index-Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT), a widely used robust evidence based tool that helps objectively assess, score, rank and prioritize individuals for housing solutions.

The three training sessions were fascinating, funny, and down to earth. De Jong spoke about Assertive Engagement Training, Solution-Focused Conversations and Housing First, respectively. The Housing First approach argues that homelessness is a housing crisis, that everyone is housing ready, and that homelessness is best solved by the provision of housing, with supports and services tailored to the needs and preferences of persons experiencing homelessness.

In the Hard Conversation at the Dallas Public Library, which co-sponsored the free event, De Jong’s subject was worded very carefully, “Who Deserves Housing First?” He spoke about what Housing First really means in practice, how the evidence backs it up, and what communities and organizations need to do, if they really want to take Housing First seriously.

The thread that was common throughout De Jong’s visit was that we need to treat every individual experiencing homelessness, as just that, an individual. We need to address every individual where he or she is, not where we wish they were. Basically, we need to treat every individual experiencing homelessness like we would want to be treated. We need to do this, not only because it is kinder and more humane; we need to do this because when we look at the evidence, the cold hard facts, it is the only approach that actually works.

This visit was just the first step. De Jong will be returning to Dallas for future visits, as he helps us at MDHA, with many more partners in the community, build an effective homeless response system, that will make homelessness in our community rare, brief and non-recurring.  So, stay tuned; you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

For more information on Dr. Iain De Jong and the groundbreaking work being done at OrgCode, check out http://www.orgcode.com/