Systems Planning Collective logoThis blog is part of a monthly series by the Systems Planning Collective to support communities in all their systems planning priorities. Stay tuned for next month's blog!

Systems Mapping as a journey not a destination  

Systems Mapping is a methodical process of making sense of the many services, benefits, and initiatives operating in your homelessness ecosystem. As such, it really is a journey rather than a destination.

We all know how dynamic our local systems are and how complex/complicated the webs of relationships can be. 

How many times have we heard the comments of those looking for help that “the system” is full of barriers, or too hard to navigate? And when’s the last time you were able to answer the question: how many rent supplements do we have in our community? Or, Housing First caseload spaces? Or, Prevention program spaces? Permanent Supportive Housing units? And so on. Oh – and how many of these are free at this moment?

As systems planners, we should be able to answer these questions – for those looking for help, for those working on the frontlines, and for policy/funder decision-makers.  

Systems mapping to support prevention 

Here’s another twist: since we know homelessness won’t be solved in the homeless-serving system alone, we should be linking/integrating with the services, assets, benefits, etc. of the broader social safety net: health, justice, children’s services, income assistance, settlement, etc. This is especially the case if we are serious about prevention and systems integration to this end. 

So - shouldn’t we know what mental health treatment beds exist, how to access them, and what spaces are available? Shouldn’t we know what case management services the corrections system or children’s services offers so we can leverage the full spectrum of support for our clients? Shouldn’t we know where to refer a vulnerable youth before they even touch the shelter door? 

We’d argue that, indeed, this is pretty basic stuff to expect. In fact, to pull off Coordinated Access without backlogging the very limited homelessness resources you might have access to (if any), you have to figure out how to pull in these other systems into an integrated ecosystem.

So how do you start? This is where systems mapping comes in. Again: it’s a journey you begin, but never expect to complete. And that’s simply because your ecosystem is always in flux: programs come and go, eligibility criteria changes, target populations shift, and of course: occupancy is dynamic.    

Thus, what systems mapping involves is actually building an infrastructure as part of your systems planning processes – it becomes a baked-in, rather than a one-time effort. It should live and breathe in the same manner as your Housing First programming or your Coordinated Access do. There is no such thing as “finishing our Systems Mapping”.

In that case, what does systems mapping involve? Here are some key components to consider:

Icon of checklist1. Start with what you have

You have to develop a process to capture and catalogue all of the services and benefits available for those at risk/homeless in the community, and ideally have this information in as real time as possible. Your community may already have a list of services in a resource guide that can help you get this going. Note that sometimes this is found in several places – you’d need to integrate and cross-reference these to get a complete picture.

Tip: Not all services and benefits are delivered by the nonprofit sector or government – the faith community, voluntary groups and the private sector make up the ecosystem as well – they should be part of your systems mapping.

Icon of network2. Fill in the blanks

What do you need to know? First is the obvious: organization names and their associated programs. Of course, a non-profit organization or government department will operate many different programs, so you need to map out each program separately and figure out what services are provided, eligibility and prioritization criteria, capacity, and occupancy.

Tip: While the actual location of a program or organization is easy to figure out, less obvious is its catchment area: some programs/benefits might be located in a city, but serve a region – like emergency social assistance – you’d need to capture this as well.  

Icon of graphing3. Go beyond the basics

Programs might also capture capacity and occupancy differently –  some refer to spaces (shelters, housing programs), others talk about caseload spaces (case management, mental health outreach, etc.). But some can’t even tell you what capacity and occupancy looks like, and that’s ok. For those that can, you need to do your best to figure it out and have some way of making sure you can keep track of the occupancy (fill rate) of these spaces.

Lastly, you’d also want to have some way of capturing the financials of these assets – for instance, we know that Hamilton’s homelessness ecosystem consists of about $550M per year. That’s obviously important to know since we would want to leverage these investments in our systems planning efforts. And to do this well, we would want to know what the sources of funding are on a per program level.

Icon of flowers4. Bring it to life 

Now that you’ve got your systems map underway, remember it’s a living tool/process. Challenge yourself to leverage this knowledge across your systems planning work. For instance, bring it to life in:

  • Coordinated Access: Use the systems map occupancy to help match clients on the By-Names List to resources available – both within and outside the homeless serving system. This way, you’re connecting to a broader social safety net to relieve pressure on the homeless serving system and more importantly to support the client in the community.
  • System design & performance: Since you now know what is in place, you can use the Systems Map to analyse gaps, duplications, areas where more efforts to integrate with other systems are needed.
  • Funding coordination: Since you understand who is funding what in your Systems Map, you’re now able to bring different players together to coordinate resources more effectively, and to align administrative and reporting needs as well.  
  • Transparency & accountability: Let’s not hoard this information. How can you turn your Systems Map into something people looking for help can actually use, especially when we think about this from a prevention lens? Putting the information online and letting the public know about existing resources and how to access them can remove a key barrier reported by people with lived experience all the time.
  • Research & policy: And of course, who wouldn’t love to mine this amazing information to find new insights into complex social issues? We should leverage this data and bring in the research community to help uncover solutions alongside those of us in the practice realm. Policy analysis using systems mapping can similarly point us in very different directions than if we were starting down a path without this critical knowledge. 

We hope this gives you a glimpse into systems mapping and why its so important in our efforts to prevent and end homelessness; and if you’re wanting to get into this further, take a look at the SPC webinar on this exact topic and how communities across Canada are tackling this work.

The SPC is also supporting the HelpSeeker systems mapping federal pilot with 15 communities/regions across the country. We will be sure to share the pilot's learnings over the coming months. As always, if you’ve got questions or ideas, we would love to hear from you.

Alina TurnerCEO and PrincipalTurner Strategies