How to measure success when helping the chronically homeless
What to consider
By Randy Shumway, 5-7 minutes, 1/27/2024
Editor’s note: This is part five of a five-part series addressing homelessness originally published in the Deseret News.
Pope Francis has taught, “A strategy for real change calls for rethinking processes in their entirety.” But how processes are rethought, and where change leads, should be oriented around a common definition of success. In the case of chronic homelessness, this five-part series has defined success unequivocally as improved human dignity. When we recognize that the root cause of chronic homelessness is debilitating trauma (not primarily economic distress or even lack of housing as it may be for those experiencing situational homelessness), success requires caring for and protecting these individuals with the sustained mental and behavioral care necessary for them to heal and achieve increased self-sufficiency.
Municipalities all over the country are struggling with similar difficulties. This creates a unique opportunity — if municipalities are willing to transparently track and broadcast success and failures — for each of us to learn from one another. One example of a municipality achieving both successes and failures is Houston’s Coalition for the Homeless.
On the surface, Houston has reduced overall homelessness by 64%. The coalition, led by the city’s mayor, empowered one designated entity — The Way Home — to coordinate communication and collaboration among all public and private stakeholders. The mayor of Houston secured cooperation by creating an advisory council comprised of community leaders across the homelessness continuum of care and only offering funding to organizations willing to align their efforts with the strategic plan. The result was unified communication and accountability systems that achieved greater efficiency and harmony.
There is also an important lesson of failure that we can learn from Houston’s efforts.
Houston failed to incorporate independent data monitoring and evaluation. And it did not distinguish between two patently different populations — situationally and chronically homeless — who share very little in common other than an arbitrary and highly flawed federal government classification of being “homeless.”
Many of Houston’s efforts hyperfocused on rapid rehousing, an effective practice specific to those experiencing situational homelessness. The technical calculation for overall homelessness therefore decreased in Houston because most homelessness is comprised of the situationally homeless. Simultaneously, chronic homelessness rose each of the past six years, escalating by 22% last year alone. And the pain and hopelessness experienced by those facing chronic homelessness are circumstances from which society has historically had very low success in helping individuals ever recover.
To be clear, Houston’s Coalition for the Homeless did a great deal that is positive and worthy of praise. But to help those specifically experiencing chronic homelessness, we must view their circumstances very differently and consequently the measurements and services used to achieve success must change.
In Houston’s case, The Way Home focused its goals on measurable activities — placing individuals in various types of housing — rather than on the ultimate desired outcome of increased human dignity. When success is clearly defined as progress toward improved human dignity, rather than on the receipt of things, then increased emphasis is placed on efforts like individualized care plans that blend mental and behavioral care with nurturing expectations surrounding a person’s capacity. By doing this, human champions kindly show that we remain confident in each individual’s potential, even in their lowest moments of hopelessness.
Society helps its most vulnerable by elevating its objectives to increased self-sufficiency and accountability, healing from trauma, the cessation of incapacitating addictions, reintegration with society and improved mental and physical well-being.
These outcomes, and their accompanying proxies, are much harder to measure than activities that are important in the short term but insufficient in addressing the circumstances creating the challenges. But the investment and focus is well worth it.
In Utah we can learn from others’ successes and mistakes. Utah’s designated entity, the Utah Homeless Council, should continue to unify service providers under a comprehensive system of shared communication, coordination and accountability that supports individuals and their personalized care plans by name. Just as importantly, the Homeless Council must unite and incentivize stakeholders on definitions and measurements of success that differentiate the unique needs of the chronically homeless to generate outcomes of sustained recovery and dignity for all.
Please go to www.utah-impact.org to engage with other Utahns committed to helping those experiencing homelessness.
Randy Shumway is the founder and chairman of the Cicero Group, the treasurer of the Utah Impact Partnership and the co-chair of the Utah Homeless Council.