We are constantly looking for interesting examples of innovation in every facet of our economy and infrastructure. I saw one example in an article by Ron Ashkenas called How Social Innovation is Helping Homeless Vets.It tells a success story about how even our government agencies (which many have written off as lethargic, bureaucratic and backwards, have engaged to make one problem get better. The problem was brought to light back in 2009 when then Veterans Affairs secretary brought to light this issues. According to the VA web site, “Veteran homelessness is a problem of national importance. According to a count on a January night in 2011, there were 67,495 homeless Veterans. And an estimated 144,842 Veterans spent at least one night in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program in a recent year.”
When VA Secretary Eric Shinseki issued his call to arms, the Federal government mobilized what seems to me an amazingly holistic solution to this problem including:
- Community Partnerships A network of more than 2,418 shelters, soup kitchens, and other community partners around the United States are providing the services Veterans need to stay in their homes or get back on their feet. Combined with other community organizations, there are over 4,000 community groups working to serve our homeless Veterans.
- Income/Employment/Benefits VA has put more than 370 currently or formerly homeless Veterans to work across the country as Vocational Rehabilitation Specialists who assist about 40,000 fellow Veterans annually.
- Housing/Supportive Services Through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), homeless Veterans are provided with Section 8 “Housing Choice Vouchers” by HUD under the HUD-VASH Program. VA provides case management services through the HUD-VASH and Grant-Per-Diem programs.
- Outreach/Education VA works on the ground in communities to raise the awareness of Veterans and their support networks about services such as 1-877-4AID-VET , VA’s 24/7 hotline to support Veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
- Prevention VA provides grants to community groups that assist Veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness and their families as well in maintaining permanent housing.
- Treatment VA supports Veterans who need a range of medical, psychiatric, vocational, or educational services through its Domiciliary Care for Homeless Veterans.
They also saw fit to partner with other parties working toward common goals like 100,000 Homes organization – which is dedicated to ending all homelessness in this country. This group too seems to see a holistic solution which they describe as these following five steps (as I pointed out in my last article about NYC Schools, it helps to have a process):
- Build the local team (who are the stakeholders who can help? A small band of passionate prophets)
- Clarify the demand (assess the nature and amount of the need)
- Line up the supply (campaign communities are finding brilliantly creative ways to line up housing and services, and they are sharing their successes so others can learn. One community created a homeless boot camp that organized all related organizations that were a part of their local bureaucracy. The result was a more than doubling of the number of veterans who could be processed and housed per month. In San Antonio, it used to take 207 days on average to move a homeless person into some form of permanent housing. That number is now down to 70 days. In Detroit, according to the NY Times article by Tina Rosenberg, has gotten the cycle time down to a remarkable 20 days!)
- Move people into housing (caringly match people to neighborhoods, housing type and cost)
- Help people stay housed (this is the hardest part, following up with skills training, counseling, job finding help, and other support infrastructures to help these people become successful)
Another impressive fact noted in the Rosenberg article is that many cities have “also greatly improved their focus on the most needy — the chronically homeless, many of whom are mentally ill or have substance abuse issues. Cities are not only moving faster, they’re doing that with more difficult clients. In Atlanta, for example, only 26 percent of housing vouchers used to go to the chronically homeless. In the last 100 days, however, 93 percent go to those most vulnerable.”
So what are the innovation lessons?
Here are some innovation principles this case example highlights for us.
- Innovation is about doing something. What I love about this story is that it highlights, for me at least, that innovation is all about DOING something. Until it is implemented, all you have are a bunch of ideas. These ideas are useless until they produce tangible action.
- It helps to have focus around a problem. Secretary Shinseki delivered the call to arms that struck at the heartstrings of many across the country. How could we turn our backs on veterans who sacrificed themselves for the benefit of our nation? It was a national disgrace that many cared about. Framing the problem around something specific can crystallize thinking. Finding homes for 100,000 homeless vets is unambiguous. We can immediately focus on how to get it done. Choosing a more general problem statement like “cure all homelessness” seems more daunting, and it is harder to know where to begin. FOCUS is a useful tool when you want to get something done quickly.
- Harness a team of like-minded people who care about the problem. The power to effect change (especially, but not exclusively in the public sector) is diffused across a broad range of stakeholders with overlapping geographical jurisdictions. Their differing funding streams reinforce silos and competition instead of collaboration. The key here was to invite players who had energy around the goal of solving a homelessness crisis, building a guiding coalition. The key here is that if your goal doesn’t excite the various stakeholders whose help you need, you’re dead. Re-think your goal.
- Create an easy-to-understand goal. This goes hand-in-hand with the previous point. The goal has to be important, and one where people can imagine tangible things that could be done. Having a deadline also helped. Trying to place 100 homeless people in 100 days was clear, concise, understandable, and measurable.
- Mobilize the entire ecosystem. In most organizations solutions to most problems span silos. You need to engage across a broad enough front where you have all the needed resources engaged. In this case multiple Federal, State and local agencies had to cooperate to streamline the processes, helped by religious groups, concerned community members, landlords, student volunteers, and the business community all lent a hand. Once they were engaged, momentum was achieved by sharing success stories, and building a sense of friendly completion among communities.
Innovation can happen anywhere. There are lots of tools and methods to help your creative thinking efforts. But, these, without considering the human equation can leave you far short when it comes to execution.
Make what you do matter. Think about who needs to be on board. Get them there. And imagine creatively the HOW. You might surprise yourself with what you can accomplish.
VA’s Commitment to End Veteran Homelessness , from the VA website.
100,ooo Homes Campaign, from their website
Teaming Up to End Homelessness, by Tina Rosenberg, NY Times