The 2015 QCOSS Conference was held on 13-14 October 2015 at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre.

On day one of the conference, Jessica Venegas, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Community Solutions in the United States, gave a keynote presentation on how they mobile their partners to change lives.

The mission of Community Solutions is to work towards a future without homelessness, in which poverty never follows families beyond a single generation. They do it by helping communities become better problem solvers, so they can fix the expensive, badly designed systems that low income people must rely on every day.  

In order to make that mission a reality, Community Solutions has implemented many initiatives that are built from the community. Together they engage residents, local non-profits, businesses and government agencies to help once-thriving communities stage a comeback. They’re coordinating a roster of partners to help residents improve local health, safety and economic prosperity; and they are working through Zero: 2016 to bring about a national change effort designed to help a committed group of US communities end chronic and veteran homelessness outright by December 2016.

This video gives a short snippet of the highlights of Jessica's speech.


So just a little bit of context, I think you might know some, but in the US we spend about six hundred billion dollars a year - I mean it's kind of obscene really how much we spend for the amount of outcomes that we get out of this, and it's not moving at the rate it should, and certainly not for the level of investment that's being made. So I'm embarrassed by this constantly, I think that we should be doing so much better and because we have data that we can act on.

For example we know 14 per cent of our long term homeless, for us chronic is long term homeless, 14 per cent of them use up to 50 per cent of the resources that are available to them, so if we really focus on that 14 per cent, we can move the needle on how resources are being spent, and then leverage them into other areas.

So a single person that's living on the street can cost upwards of $60,000 a year while going through shelters, going through our public jail system, potentially our public health system and for your country and the way that you support and certainly at the state level all of those systems that are touching that individual are costing you right and so every time you're not working together, every time that there's a disjointed approach to how you're serving that person, you're losing out on some ability to provide resources in another area.

We knew that there's this big problem nationally around the amount of spending that we're doing for our chronic homeless, and so our intention was how do we launch some kind of an effort nationally that would really focus on this population and make sure that we were focusing resources in the right way. And so we wanted to house a hundred thousand chronic and vulnerable homeless people in four years, audacious goal right? And our approach was going to be a campaign approach, so we didn't know much going but this was what it was going to be.

The hundred thousand homes campaign for us was a national movement of 186 communities that decided together that decided together to house a hundred thousand of our most chronic and vulnerable. It was specific, we chose a specific population: chronic and vulnerable, and for us chronic, just meaning long-term, and we were focused on a robust system of connecting communities to solve problems together.

So one of the things was when we started we started with just five communities and we wanted to make sure that they could have access to each other and to learn together to actually inform each other through quality improvement practices, but they needed to be able to get connected and so what we knew was in order to get people motivated we needed to find that change agent, that person in the community, that person like you, in your community doing the work, that was interested to be part of a network nationally that was doing this work.

We didn't really know actually where the housing was coming from, right, this isn't about oh somebody said that there's all this money or all of these housing units, it wasn't about that, it was actually about what exists currently in our environment and how are we leveraging it and how are we making sure we're working together to actually solve it for that person.

So communities that participated and signed up with us didn't get anything from us, except for a lot of, certainly at the beginning, just a lot of cheerleading, right. We eventually got some funding to do work around technical assistance, it was really around two of our campaign leads basically getting in a car and driving around the country and helping communities go out and find people and survey them, on the street. So some of you here were part of your registry weeks that happened yes, so that's great work right, and when you actually know who's on the street it's a very different conversation than when you just have some random number in a book that you're working towards, and so getting that going was part of that but there was no promise for additional resources to get them motivated to do it.

So how would you even be successful? I think some of the things that we had, that we made sure we lined up as we were launching was that we were really inspired, we beg borrow and steal ruthlessly, and we still do this right, so if there's something that's working another sector what's working about it? How does that relate to us? How can we figure out how to support our communities?

In this case we had read in a book called The Tipping Point, I'm not sure if you guys are familiar but The Tipping Point talks about a number of different initiatives that made a big difference with just a little minor change somewhere along the way and in this case they talked about the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, and they are a quality improvement organization that does work in the health care system and they went out and tried to reduce mortality rates based on five simple things hospitals could do, to actually reduce mortality rates in hospitals, and so we were like, oh that's awesome, let's come up with the five things communities can do to end homelessness that'll be easy right? And so we came up with these five things, and of course I'll talk a little bit more about failing forward, but that was not necessarily everything that needed to happen, but that was certainly where we started. So that's, we had some inspiration that something big, that was deemed impossible was possible.

Again, the ambitious time bound goal, we needed something to measure ourselves against and our communities against. A proven intervention,  does everyone know what housing first is? It's been around forever right? This is a proven intervention, this is nothing new. But actually implementing it and all having the same understanding of what that means in your service delivery is a very different thing, right? So it's one thing to have a best practice over here, and have a proven intervention, and it's a whole other thing to actually implement it and work as a team to make it happen.

So when you partner with your government allies to make sure that they're using the resources that they have at hand, help them use those resources right, I mean there is some ability that they have there that may not be that they can say everything that you say, that can't necessarily act in the way that you act, but they can bring people together, and they can ensure that conversations are happening on a regular basis.

So why they're challenging, and again I could go into this for a long time too, but I think, you know, acknowledging that it's challenging is just part of the battle in making sure that you're successful, right? If they're constrained in the way that they can act, if they're compliance focused, if they're slow to act, it's because they're meant to be, that is how government is set up, right?

And so understanding that and understanding where they're coming from on that lends to a very different conversation about oh right, listen I can move quickly even though you can't, so what I need is your support in me moving quickly, and I'm going to push the envelope, and I'm going to say things that you can't say and what I need from you is that you're not going to threaten my funding because I'm trying to solve a problem.

That's a real conversation, and it happens regularly for us, and we certainly have been at the table where it's been very contentious but I think the true value of having a relationship over time, that is not just a one time, I'm coming in for an ask, is that we do share the value of trying to solve this problem.

One of the areas we really were failing forward, was that we, early on because we really wanted communities to sign up, we weren't sure if they were going to, it wasn't all that popular for the first year I promise you, was that we let them set their own goals right, and in one case and since I'm picking on LA a little bit, LA said ok we're going to do project 50.  Now has anyone been to LA? Anybody know about Skid Row? I mean it was kind of ridiculous right? You're only going to house 50 people, you've got like thousands of people living on the street downtown and being warehoused, so it's not an aggressive enough goal for sure, if you're trying to solve the problem. I mean it's a good goal for doing a study, and they did, and we have a really great cost study on it, and so there's nothing wrong with that, but it's not about solving the problem,

So I think what we learned, about a year in, we were just over a year in, was we finally had enough data, and I think to Mark's point about using data, and the data you guys actually recently got, through your counts but we had enough data to know what it was going to really take for a community to get on trajectory to solve the problem. What our data folks came up with is that, for a community to be on a four-year trajectory to ending homelessness they had to house at least two and a half per cent of their baseline into housing every month.

And what we found out here, was when we had that data, we were going to be the thirty thousand homes campaign, which, I mean, we had this serious oh crap moment, right? We had been saying hundred thousand homes, we were really giddy, we had that nice video that you just saw, we were going to get there, and we were like, oh no, the data is not going to get us there, we're not getting there at all, and so we were really like, ok, now we know, and at least we have enough information that we've got to change the way we're doing our work.

And I think the flexibility and ability of our communities, cause we had to call them all and tell them ok guess what you don't get to set your goal anymore, we actually think that you need to reach a target and based on the numbers that you've given us, this is your new target.

So where did we end up? Well we actually ended successfully with over a hundred thousand people housed and 186 communities participating, it was a huge undertaking. We started with five people on our national movement team and we ended with 15. We had support from an enormous amount of our government partners, federal and at the state level. It wouldn't have been possible without all of the partners that got engaged.

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