Opinion

Homeless Agencies: Growing Bigger and Smaller at the Same Time

By | Jul 1, 2014

430px-Homeless_-_American_FlagBack in the 1980s, when the original founders of PATH created a small program to help people who were homeless on the Westside of Los Angeles, they never imagined that they would still be in business 30 years later. They thought homelessness was a temporary crisis that would be resolved within five years.

Little did they know that housing and serving people who are homeless would become a billion dollar endeavor throughout the entire country.

Today, that small Westside homeless agency has grown 60 times larger, works in 22 locations throughout Southern and Central California, and helps thousands of people move into permanent apartments each year.

As the leader of this organization, I am sometimes conflicted. We are supposed to put ourselves out of business by ending homelessness. We are supposed to eliminate the need, so no community will ever require our services again. Instead, our agency is growing tremendously in staff size, budget, and reach.

Most entrepreneurial-minded people would see this growth as a success. I see it as society’s failure to resolve its social issues.

Last week, I shared with our nearly 250 staff members how I see the future of our organization. I told them that we need to grow bigger and smaller at the same time.

I know this sounds contradictory. Bigger and smaller at the same time?

But here is my thinking: Since the 1980s, homelessness in this country has become a human quagmire. Recent national initiatives have shown that efforts to address it have been successful, especially among homeless veterans, but most local leaders still complain that homelessness haunts their streets and public spaces.

The need for housing and services is great. Any homeless agency that chooses to downsize on its own, simply because it thinks smaller is better, has faulty logic. If the need is still great, then agencies should continue to grow bigger. We should help as many people as we can to get off the streets and into their own homes.

Being bigger, however, comes with its own issues. Just look at the problems encountered by General Motors. This week, another 7 million of its vehicles are being recalled.

Agencies that serve people cannot fall into the GM trap of doing more, while doing it less effectively.

We, as people-centered organizations, need to make sure that the quality of our services is paramount. Just like we did when we were still that tiny homeless agency with half a dozen staff. Back then, I could observe every staff person individually to ensure our agency was truly helping people. Today, that is impossible.

That is why we need to “grow smaller.” But that does not mean reducing our services; it means prioritizing their quality.

How do we make sure that, after we move people into apartments, their quality of life increases? How do we connect our recently-housed people with a community that will support and care for them? How do we ensure that each person’s dignity stays intact throughout the transition from streets to home? How do we make sure that our staff, the caregivers, are also cared for?

Addressing these questions actually makes our agency smaller. Not smaller in terms of size, but smaller in that it allows us to perform our services as if we were still a small agency, where everyone knows the name of each person we serve and everyone pitches in to help.

Being an agency that grows bigger and smaller at the same time is, in my opinion, a realistic way to ensure effective services.