Monday, November 6, 2017

How Do We Know What We Know? - The Final Installment of the CoC Strategic Work Plan Online Learning Clinic

In this final installment of our Continuum of Care Strategic Work Plan, we touch on Goal V: Drive Decision-making with HMIS Data, zeroing in on Objective VIIII: Increase Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) participation rates to no less than 86% of all beds and housing types.
In a recent blog post we talked about the idea of ending veteran homelessness, and how more than fifty communities have achieved just that. Now, you might ask: Are you trying to say that there are no homeless veterans in any of those communities? Well, no, that is not what we are trying to say. Indeed, the quote from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) in that blog post talks about those communities bringing down the number of veterans experiencing homelessness not to zero, but as close as possible to zero. So, what is it? What do we mean by ending veteran homelessness?
USICH helpfully defines this for us in a document that is worth reading in full. Basically, it means that all veterans experiencing homelessness are and continue to be identified, that shelter is provided immediately to all who request it, that traditional transitional housing is rarely used, and instead all are offered and provided with permanent housing, as swiftly as possible. Most importantly, that community must not have done all of this on an ad hoc basis, but show that it, “has resources, plans, partnerships, and system capacity in place should any Veteran become homeless or be at risk of homelessness in the future.”

Governor Dan Malloy, of Connecticut,
discussing his state being the second to end veteran homelessness
(Courtesy of WNPR)
The importance of knowing that more than fifty communities have done this is, as we pointed out in that previous blog post, that this is doable. We often assume that what is, always was, and will always continue to be. Perhaps this is a result of our evolution, which before modern times granted us extremely short life spans. Indeed, the forty years of the modern homelessness crisis is longer than the life expectancy of our prehistorical ancestors roaming the African savannah. That is just it, though, this crisis is a new phenomenon in American Life.

What we aim to return to, through the development of effective homeless response systems across the country, is not full housing, with no one ever becoming homeless. What we aim to return to is a reality that existed in our country prior to the mid-seventies of the last century, when homelessness was rare, brief and nonrecurring. And so, when we speak of ending homelessness, what we really mean is bringing about an end to the modern homelessness crisis.

(Parenthetically, this is not to say that full housing is not a desirable outcome. As Dr. Barbara DiPietro pointed out in her visit mid-October, it is extremely desirable, and it too is very doable. However, this would require a realignment of resources, across our society on a much broader level. At the minimum, it would likely require that housing vouchers be made available to all who qualify for them, and that refusing to accept them as payment be outlawed across the land.)

But, how will we know when we get there? This might seem like a simple question. If only. In fact, one might ask a broader philosophical question, How do we know what we know?” The study of how we know what we know, epistemology, has become extremely important, as our society further fractures and sources of information multiply. We are forced to ask ourselves, “What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge? What are its sources? What is its structure, and what are its limits?”

This is especially true regarding homelessness, where,our failures are the most visible and our successes the most hidden." In this type of environment, it becomes difficult not to fall into the trap of assuming that data is just the plural of anecdote, and that the latest sensational headline negates evidence based practices.

The only hope for truly knowing what we know is the painstaking continuous and relentless collection and analysis of data in one shared open system, which everyone reports into. That word everyone is the crux of this proposition. As we mentioned in a previous post on this blog, “In early 2015, only 3%(!) of the shelter beds available to Dallas’ homeless population were reported into the (homeless management information) system… It was… analogous to Schrödinger’s Cat… the cat was 97% sealed within the box.”

We have come a long way since that 3% mark in 2015, partnering with PCCI and now Pieces Tech to develop and over the last few months implement, that single open state-of-the-art HMIS for Dallas, gradually and continuously increasing the number of beds in the system. We are determined under this plan to break that 86% mark, the minimum acceptable to the Federal Government, and keep on pushing until we get as close as possible to 100%. That alone is bringing us that much closer to achieving an end to not only veteran homelessness, but all types of homelessness, making this societal ill, once again, rare, brief and nonrecurring, and keeping it that way.

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