Bridging human services silos that impede progress on homelessness

Wed, 2016-10-26 12:45 -- Liz Enbysk

A recent roundtable discussion on teenage homelessness in Boston addressed a problem plaguing so many communities today. Rather than a coordinated approach to serving homeless populations, splintered or patchwork systems prevail.  

As Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in the discussion hosted by the Boston Herald, there isn't a quarterback to run all of the services and coordinate with all of the players.

City Housing Chief Sheila Dillon also lamented the "splintered" approach. “We have a lot of well-meaning nonprofits in Boston but they are not coordinated,” Dillon said in the Herald article. “We really need to do that in the near future.”

“The silo effect is something that is really endemic,” said Orange County (CA) Supervisor Andrew Do said earlier this year in naming a new "homeless czar" tasked with synchronizing the county's various social service programs, including health care, that serve the homeless.

Bridging the silos
In 2015, Denver won an IBM Smarter Cities Challenge grant and asked for help designing "an integrated system for efficiently coordinating the delivery of services to those experiencing homelessness and to at-risk populations through many providers across a multi-county region."

The IBM team that went to Denver found that the single greatest impediment to addressing the challenge is the fragmented nature of assistance efforts and related data for those experiencing homelessness. And as is the case elsewhere, they determined that services in the region are segmented, delivered by a complex network of government agencies and both private and nonprofit organizations.

What to do? Among the recommendations provided by Council Lead Partner IBM's team:

  • Develop an integrated regional data management system
  • Improve Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) capabilities
  • Establish coordinated data entry
  • Expand coordinated assessment
  • Develop a common mobile/web application
  • Expand the use of outcome-based metrics

Doing those things, the IBMers suggested, should improve regional coordination of data collection, analysis, sharing and reporting, strengthen collaboration among service providers and simplify how clients gain access to services.

Another anticipated outcome: the ability to measure program success more accurately and replicate it more easily.

A three-county approach
Three counties in Washington State are also trying to figure out what works and what doesn't  with their  coordinated, data-driven effort to more effectively serve the homeless and those struggling to keep their homes in the greater Seattle area.

The Data-Driven Culture Initiative brings together public and nonprofit service providers from King, Snohomish and Pierce Counties, the Building Changes nonprofit and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

As those involved note, there is no one entity responsible for ending homelessness – it involves a maze of nonprofits, philanthropies and city, county and state agencies. But now they are all using a shared tool – a data dashboard – to gather data that has been collected over time and continues to be collected. And they are able to look at it quickly and flexibly to gain insights. What used to take weeks to discover, they say, can be pulled up in seconds now.

The result? "We’re having a better, smarter conversation about how well we’re doing, what changes we need to make, and which programs are effective," said Amanda Thompkins, a data project manager for King County.

Public-private collaboration
A number of years ago, the Alliance for Regional Solutions brought together all nine municipalities in San Diego's North County region, the county of San Diego, law enforcement agencies, private foundations and more than 30 nonprofit health and human service organizations to address homelessness.

"We were created to address homelessness in North County, though we now foster additional collaborations that address employment, mental health, food policy and seniors," Alliance President Greg Anglea wrote in a recent San Diego Union-Tribune op-ed piece. "No one city, agency or individual can fully address such complicated problems. We work together with trust, accountability, shared resources and a common goal. Visitors from other parts of the county are astounded when they attend our meetings. They’ve never seen this kind of collaboration before."

Beyond shelters, Anglea says the Alliance provides a bridge out of homelessness. Last year it implemented a coordinated entry system for homelessness, which is now linked with similar collaborative approaches in downtown San Diego and the East County and South Bay areas.

The reality, Anglea writes, is there are still not enough resources to help all of the San Diego region's homeless. But the good news, he believes, is that they have a proven model to overcome those challenges. As he says, "It's called working together."

Related articles…
Hard data and warm hearts: A formula for ending homelessness
From Oahu to Asheville, voters will be asked to help fix the housing crisis


This article is from the Council's Compassionate Cities initiative which highlights how city leaders and other stakeholders can leverage smart technologies to end suffering in their communities and give all citizens a route out of poverty. Click the Compassionate Cities box on our registration page to receive our weekly newsletter.

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