December 31, 2008

Chasing Symptoms – Banging Heads

My IT guy has been digging around in my server for five weeks trying to fix a problem of intermittent server outages. He comes in, finds what appears to be the problem gives me the “good news” and then about two days later, it happens again. After 30 hours and numerous head on the wall banging episodes later he has come up with this analysis: “Chris, we are trying to locate and resolve the root problem, but it’s very hard to find, and once we do find it we have to have the right fix to make sure it doesn’t come back”.

Chasing and slapping the quick fix on the symptoms of the root problem has been a costly and frustrating experience. For me it’s only a few thousand bucks and a quick plaster patch job on the wall. But what about when we translate this to the problem of homelessness?

In my humble opinion of nearly two decades working in this field, this is what many communities STILL do with their homeless problem. Slap a quick fix on the problem. Feel better for awhile. Get more homeless impacts…more quick fixes. And the cycle continues ad nauseam. The press drives the issue constantly saying that we need to do more, more shelters, more money to help, more, more, and more. And for the most part, most people out there really DON’T have the time to learn and understand such a complex issue, so they take one of two sides: Help them, or don’t help them. But there should be a third way and it’s the way that Solutions for Change has been proposing for many years. SOLVE the ROOT problem! But that message gets drowned out in another newspaper story, another meeting, and another plan.

So we end up doing more. All the while it LOOKS like we are doing something because after all, we have our emergency winter shelters, our ten year plans, our consortiums and meetings and it goes on and on. I’ve been a participant in this process and I have seen firsthand how the system works.

Someone once said that every organization (or in this case our homeless policies) is perfectly designed to get the results that they are getting. There were 1.3 million homeless children in America this year. How do you like those results?

A friend of mine, Tom Suddes, puts it this way. Three powerful insights: ABANDON, REDESIGN, REIMAGINE.

- Abandon the old way we approach and manage the problem of homelessness.

- Redesign using new entrepreneurial intervention and engagement strategies cemented in the absolute non negotiable bottom line: SOLVE IT! Solve it for the person. Solve it for the community. Period. End of planning process.

- Reimagine our North County community with NO homeless families. No homeless people in the parks. No homeless impacts in our cities.

Maybe 2009 will be the year. We never give up hope here.

December 9, 2008

ON POINT: The basics

Did you miss last week’s ON POINT article? If so you can catch up below.

While serving in the Corps aboard Camp Pendleton I lost a bet with my buddies and as the part of the deal, the loser had to serve in a soup kitchen line. That was a chilly winter night seventeen years ago which changed the course of my life forever. It was supposed to be a onetime shot to show the community that we Marines care, ladle some soup real quick and get back to the base. But this homeless dude named Steve (nickname Wolfman) messed up my plan and ever since I’ve been on this crazy divinely navigated mission of trying to SOLVE homelessness for both an individual and a community.

I decided to do these “On Point” articles because while working with and for the homeless, I’ve met a lot of people who care about this issue who want to understand the problem on a deeper more thought provoking level. They, like me, want to feel as though their involvement has purpose and meaning AND actually solves the problem they are working on. People call me a social purpose entrepreneur; but I just simply feel like I have an addiction to finding solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems with no money, no good looks (although my wife might argue that one) and no time.

I don’t know how long I’ll write these, I suppose as long as you find them interesting and useful. I’m working on putting together an ON POINT – ON IMPACT series for 2009. I’d like to hear from you so feel free to share with me your comments, suggestions or criticisms.

There are some very important lessons I’ve learned while working with the homeless and with the people who get involved, either for or against, helping the homeless. These lessons have come both from my own personal struggles and from the insights of those who I have struggled with. I’ve been personally involved with tens of thousands of interactions and transactions of compassion, indifference, pity, fear, spite, guilt, anger, joy, love, courage, defeat and victory as it relates to homelessness. Examining my own ideals while honestly trying to deal with these feelings has shaped some fundamental beliefs about homelessness, both as it impacts a human being and as it impacts our community at large.

Throughout these articles you’ll run into those beliefs and the lessons behind them. I’ll introduce them to you for seemingly no logical reason and in no particular order. Sometimes you won’t like or agree with what I say and sometimes you will. My purpose is to get us, as a North County community, to think deeper about solving one of the most pressing social ills that we as a people face. Yeah, I know its “bad timing” right now to be talking about the homeless when we’re confronted with these tough economic times ourselves. I get that. I guess all I can offer you is one of the tools we use here when things are tough, which is basically all the time for a mom with two kids who is on the comeback trail from homelessness. We here at Solutions for Change are big believers in the power of contribution to others. Let me say that clearer. We are always looking for ways that our clients can help others.

That means that we tell the mom here (we have a few dads here too, but 85% of the burden of recovering from homelessness falls on women, the single mom), that even though she has experienced major loss and consequences, to get out there and help others both within our centers and outside in the community. And she does. You see, by helping others, the grip that the problem has on our attitudes and therefore our actions lesson, they become more and more insignificant instead of more and more overwhelming. Helping others allows us to get outside of ourselves and when we do, clarity usually follows. Weird huh? Why would a “homeless shelter” be engaging its residents to find ways to help others when they all need so much help themselves? This is but one of the many differences that define Solutions for Change. And it is the first Lesson Learned that I am going to share with you today.

Lesson Learned #4: Engage the homeless person as an asset, not a liability. Government, church and not for profits must stop treating the homeless like liabilities that have to be contained, managed or controlled. These people have gifts that when realized and tapped will make them healthier and happier and make our community stronger. Both can and should happen simultaneously. But instead we see all the time that one happens at the expense of the other. Homeless providers or churches try to open homeless programs and communities rally to stop them. Or shelters and soup kitchens open and then we see impacts in our parks and public spaces. It doesn’t have to be this way. Both the homeless person and the community can win. Both individual homelessness and community homelessness can be solved. But the thing is that it’s not going to happen with the same old schematics, the same old containment plan.

Getting a homeless person to realize and tap these gifts doesn’t happen by simply giving them a bowl of soup, a warm bed, a hug and a “social worker”. It happens with a plan that includes the soup, bed, hugs and case worker but goes WAY beyond those things. It happens strategically with first recognizing which one of the three kinds of homeless person we are engaging. Is the person stuck in an active addiction to drugs or alcohol (The Will Not), is he or she suffering from a severe mental illness (The Can Not), or have they lost their job, been a victim of domestic violence, or been raised in a poverty situation (The Have Not)? We fail because we have only scratched the surface with developing customized intervention and engagement strategies for each one of these three groups of homeless. And when we treat a Will Not like a Can Not, we set ourselves up for huge and very expensive experiments which eventually fail us. And its not only the community that gets burned with their parks and public spaces impacted, it’s the homeless person too. Because we can do better than just feeding them and keeping them warm at night.

In fact, if we could engage the homeless person as an asset, not a liability as a matter of deliberate programming, acting on this belief alone could transform how America deals with homelessness. It is part of the Solutions for Change vision, that one day the homeless that we help will also be developed and empowered as the resources that we need to win this battle and defeat homelessness for people and communities, permanently. We do it now at Solutions, but there is so much more we could do if other efforts embraced this concept.

ON POINT: The Homeless Issue in North San Diego County

When serving in the Corps, we had to make our own parts in the metal shop. We couldn’t just put in the trusty requisition form and expect to get a nice new part the next day like the Army or Air Force. I've been making "parts", finding creative solutions and helping to rebuild much more important things since those days.

It started by accident when I lost a bet with my fellow Marines, I wasn’t too happy about having to serve in a soup kitchen line. Little did I know that this would be the divine pivot point that would change my whole life. That first night, I met one of North County's most prominent "chronic" homeless persons. Steve. Nickname: Wolfman. Not knowing exactly why, I sat down with him over a bowl of soup.

What I learned starting in that moment with Steve was that there was an elaborate system of churches and non profits and many heroes who worked tirelessly to feed, clothe and take care of all the Steve's out there. But the more I talked to Steve and listened to his trials the more troubled I became.

So I decided to do what any good Marine would do, I packed my stuff and went on a little recon mission into the parks, beaches and service centers of San Diego county. What I came out of there with a few days later fired me up big time and put me on a divinely navigated pathway, which as you’ve figured out by now would take me on a 17 year mission (my friends say it’s more like a calling). What I have learned then and what I know now is much the same, only I can summarize it better now because (like most Marines) I needed to get some of this stuff drilled into my head. Here it is:

- Many churches and non profits have these amazing dedicated compassionate people, heroes really, working tirelessly trying to help the homeless
- Many homeless people, desperately needing help, consumed the resources given by these great organizations
- The people helping felt good
- The people being helped felt good
- The business community, the government and community at large where the homeless and the programs were in felt bad. They were angry actually.
- Why? Because the programs were helping the homeless at the expense of the community instead of with and for the community.
- They were helping the homeless with a “one size fits all approach” instead of recognizing that there were distinctly different needs around vastly different segments of the homeless:

o Intervention, Engagement and Strategy Number One: Solve it for the Will Not. The Will Not is typically the highest percentage of homeless person out there on the streets representing 40% or more of the homeless. This is the person who is normally stuck in an active addiction and is impacting our community the greatest. Not utilizing a customized strategic plan with this segment of the homeless problem is the single biggest reason why we fail. The cost to society of managing this group and “churning” them through the various government funded “systems” is staggering.

o Intervention, Engagement and Strategy Number Two: Solve it for the Can Not. The Can Not represents about 18% of the total homeless population. This is the person that suffers from a bonafide mental illness or a dual diagnosis. Interestingly enough, this number is often over represented in the field because a high percentage of WILL NOT’s get treated like CAN NOT’s. This is a recipe for disaster.

o Intervention, Engagement and Strategy Number Three: Solve it for the Have Not. The Have Not’s are all the other homeless persons out there. Typically they are the ones who become homeless due to economic reasons, domestic violence or other factors due to external or environmental reasons. This is the percentage of homeless that most homeless providers call “skimming the cream” because they are the easiest to work with (when compared to the Will Not or Can Not) and have the highest relative positive outcomes.

Lesson learned after the recon mission and more. Megison’s New Mission. The Goal: Figure out a way to SOLVE homelessness for the person AND the community simultaneously.

The ultimate test of effectiveness (and it is progressive with greater positive outcomes seen over time) 1) Less homeless people in our community, 2) less homeless impacts in our community 3) More formerly homeless people being productive and contributing to a healthy and strong community by earning income, buying goods from area merchants and helping others by paying it forward.

After many years of playing around with and retooling “parts” we’ve been able to social reengineer and get these results consistently.

When a community runs emergency shelters and homeless programs and we see many homeless people struggling to survive in parks, beaches and public spaces are we solving the problem or containing the problem?

The reason this happens is because we are stuck in using outdated and ineffective operational models. After working for 17 years on this issue and experiencing thousands of interactions with the homeless we've developed a model based on innovative intervention and engagement strategies. The model can work for any community that wants to SOLVE homelessness. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I am saying that it’s doable. The documentary being done on Vista and the efforts in this city to SOLVE homelessness proves this.

It really comes down to how bad do you as a community want to solve homelessness?