For years now, homelessness service agencies have been bashed as “old technology,” still stuck in the 1980s when it comes to helping people who are homeless. We imagine bunk beds in barren warehouses, food lines stretching around the block, and soup kitchens with hungry people clutching metal food trays like Oliver Twist.
Many critics describe today’s homelessness agencies like they are a vintage Super Mario Brothers video game with archaic two-dimensional graphics that just can’t compete with today’s lifelike video games.
These types of homelessness agencies were compassionate, community-based organizations that were caught in a backward cycle in which homelessness continued to increase despite their hard work.
So, more than ten years ago, a “new” way to address homelessness began to spread across the country. They called it the “Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness.” This movement challenged communities throughout America to bring together political, business, and charity leaders and design specific ten-year plans to house every person struggling with chronic homelessness in their jurisdictions.
By bringing in new leaders and using a radical new approach to housing—“Housing First,” which prioritizes placing chronically homeless individuals into permanent housing first, then providing supportive services in their homes—these plans looked like they might turn the tables on homelessness.
Ten years later, however, these plans are no longer “new” and, although they changed the paradigm for addressing homelessness, they have not ended it.
Then, several years ago, an innovative New York-based group decided to turn the tables yet again. Rather than counting the number of years in which a community “should” be able to end homelessness, why not count the number of chronically homeless people being moved into homes? Their goal was to house 100,000 chronically homeless Americans, and they are already three-quarters of the way there.
This movement gave homelessness organizations, like PATH, new tools and a new way to help people who are homeless. And experts are starting to see the relevance of today’s homelessness agencies, as these groups continue adapting to new environments.
Recently, I was at a “Next Practices” conference at Harvard University, listening as leaders discussed why “best practices” need to be replaced by “next practices.” Their goal for the future was not to generate public policy or academic theories, but to generate user-driven data to steer their work in new directions. They highlighted adaptive approaches, not adoptive approaches. They advocated for practical, long-term trial-and-error initiatives instead of short-term “pilot” projects that are only funded for brief periods of time.
In fact, the future these leaders described was the very environment in which all those “old technology” homelessness service agencies have been operating for the last decade.
The homelessness agencies of the 1980s—at least the ones that survived—have evolved into organizations that are out on the streets convincing vulnerable people to come inside, that are permanently housing people who have been on the streets for years, and that are providing compassionate counseling and support for people after they move into their new homes.
These “next” agencies are adaptive, effective homelessness service practitioners. They don’t focus on short-term approaches. They initiate long-term programs through trial and error that are actually getting people housed.
The plans of a decade ago, and the new tools and approaches that have changed the landscape of homelessness in the years since, have served as a foundation for the future. The future is homelessness service providers stepping up as the adaptive initiators that just might finally end homelessness, like so many policymakers and think-leaders set out to do ten years ago.
Maybe, to move forward, we need to go “back” to the 1980s. But, this time, homelessness agencies will be ready with the newest, best approaches to ending homelessness.