For years now, homeless service agencies have been bashed as "old technology," still stuck in 1980s models of helping people who are homeless. We imagine
bunk beds in barren warehouses, food lines streaming around the block, and soup kitchens with hungry adults clutching their metal food trays like they are
orphaned Oliver Twists.
Many critics describe today's homeless agencies as if they are a vintage 1980s Super Mario Brothers video game with archaic two-dimension graphics that
can't compete with today's 3D, HD, and practically real life video games.
Homeless agencies were compassionate, hard working, meet-the-needs type of community-based organizations that were caught up in a backward cycle where
homelessness continued to increase dramatically, despite these agencies' two-dimensional work.
So, more than ten years ago, a "new" technology for addressing homelessness began to spread across the country. They called it the "Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness." This challenged cities and counties
throughout America to bring together political, business, and charity leaders to design a specific plan to house every person struggling with chronic
homelessness in their jurisdiction.
By adding new "players" to deal with a community's homeless population (specifically, business and community leaders) to a new approach ("housing first" that prioritized permanent housing for the most chronic homeless persons) these
plans turned the tables on the existing homeless services world.
Ten years later, however, these plans are no longer "new" and although they
changed the paradigm for addressing homelessness they have not ended chronic homelessness.
So, several years ago an innovative New York-based group decided to turn the tables on this "plan" approach. Rather
than count the number of years a community should end homelessness, why not count the number of chronic homeless persons being placed into homes in a
community? Their goal was to house 100,000 chronically homeless Americans, and they are three-quarters of the way there.
This movement gave local homeless practitioners, like the agency I run, real tools and a new direction ("new
technology") to help accomplish an agency's still relevant but old mission ("old technology") to help people who are homeless.
Experts today are seeing the relevance of today's homeless agencies, as these groups adapt to a new environment.
Recently, I was at a "Next Practices" conference
at Harvard University listening to leaders discuss why "best practices" need to be replaced by "next practices." Their emphasis was not on generating
policy and academic theories, but to generate practitioner/user generated data to steer a new direction. They highlighted adaptive approaches, not adoptive
approaches. They supported practical long-term trial and error initiatives rather than simply "pilot" projects that are funded temporarily but then end.
The future that these leaders were describing was an environment that these "old technology" homeless practitioners have been operating in during this past
decade of "new" plans and new theories to end homelessness.
The homeless agencies of the 1980s -- at least the ones that survived -- have evolved into organizations that are on the streets convincing vulnerable people
to come inside, that are actually permanently housing people who have been on the streets for years, and that are providing compassionate counseling and
support for people who have been recently housed.
These "next" agencies are adaptive, effective practitioners, who are not creating "pilot" projects but actually initiating programs through trial and
success that are getting people housed.
The plans of a decade ago, and the new tools and approaches that have changed the landscape of homelessness in the past several years have been a
foundation for the future... The future is homeless practitioners being the "next" adaptive initiators that could very well finish the job of ending
homelessness that policy makers and think-leaders created ten years ago.
Maybe we are back to the 1980s. But with the "next" best approach to ending homelessness.