I’ll try to get us back on track this week with what this internship is really about – homelessness. It’s one of those “wicked problems” we’ve learned about in the MPA program: a persistent, inescapable, and borderless conundrum. We live in the richest, most advanced country in the world, yet we still have men, women, and children living on the streets, in the woods, in vacant properties, or in the homes of neighbors or family. The quandary seems like simple algebra at first glance – our county has X number of individuals who have no residence, and probably no job, we just need the same number of meals and beds. From a single-loop learning perspective, the answers, or perhaps the responsibility of the public seems as simple as bystanders willing to give money for a meal to the man on the street asking for it. As with all wicked problems however, homelessness is ingrained in our country because of systemic and chronic elements of our economics, our institutions, our society. Private and public actors attempting to relieve homelessness approach their mission from a double-loop learning frame, thinking “how did this individual or family become homeless in the first place, and what about our systems are keeping them in the spiral.”
Assuredly, personal responsibility and individual experience are prominent elements in an organization’s construction of the narratives of both falling into homelessness and climbing out of it. One of the most recent paradigms tied housing assistance with wraparound supportive services, so that participants must engage in employment training, substance abuse counseling, or some other programing to keep their housing voucher. More recently, however, HUD and the field as a whole has shifted to a Housing First strategy, with the motto, homelessness is only ended with a home. In the most effective programs, support services are offered with housing assistance, but participation in those services isn’t mandatory. Individuals are not suddenly losing their housing because of an addiction relapse or a missed appointment with their case manager. The focus on providing homes first has been correlated with relieved pressure on other systems homeless individuals frequently come into contact with, namely law enforcement and medical services, as well as better health outcomes in general for those individuals. Housing First is only one element to addressing homelessness however, and concentrates on a particular condition – chronic homelessness. Those experiencing chronic homelessness typically have a behavioral and/or physical condition that affects their employability, and possibly a substance addiction as well. This population is probably the most visible, and most counted subset of all homeless individuals, and are predominantly male. There are so many issues surrounding homelessness, making it a wicked problem, but even the language and the imagery of homelessness contributes to confusion and sometimes an ignorance of how many people are truly affected by the same systemic obstacles in our society.
My main project in this internship focuses on this Housing First model, specifically on Wake County’s rental assistance to individuals who are chronically homeless, to youth aging out of the foster care system, and to homeless persons with AIDS/HIV. We receive funding from HUD and are able to provide a few hundred housing vouchers to individuals of target populations, but we also run a shelter and a separate service center that has day programs, and provides case management for some of our clients. My supervisor has tasked me with defining our “pipeline” of services and how to better coordinate between all of our teams. It sounded simple enough to me initially, but then launching into an organizational map I began trying to visually track all of the stakeholders, funding sources, service teams, supervisors, targeted populations, and offered services, and my notebook now looks like the ravings of Dr. Frankenstein. So much of governance and addressing a huge, complicated problem, is the quality of information and the vision of the problem. I’m having to try at once to see the macro objectives and problems with my left eye, while being able to focus on the micro requirements and details with my right. It’s all a mess right now, but I have 11 weeks to straighten it out, and build some kind of sensical spiderweb. Hopefully I won’t get caught in it! See y’all next week.