Ending Homelessness with Systems Thinking

When we think about ending homelessness, there are many ways to conceptualize the problems and solutions. Some people think on the level of individuals, while others look at program-level outcomes. Recent plans to end homelessness developed by many communities often encourage a system-level approach. But what does that mean? David Peter Stroh of Bridgeway Partners sheds light on Systems Thinking as a way to solve tough problems.

David Peter Stroh was a founding partner of Innovation Associates, the pioneering consulting firm in the area of organizational learning, and is currently a principal in Bridgeway Partners (www.bridgewaypartners.com). He has expertise in the areas of visionary planning, leadership development, systems thinking, organization design, and change management. Much of his work over the past 25 years has focused on using systems thinking to strengthen organizational assessments, develop business strategy, resolve deep-seated conflict, and facilitate sustainable change. How can this be applied to homelessness? HRC’s Jeff Olivet asks Mr. Stroh.

Q: What is Systems Thinking?

A: Systems thinking is an approach to understanding and resolving chronic, complex problems. It:

  • Illuminates the dynamic and often non-obvious interdependencies among multiple elements that create such problems.
  • Increases awareness of how people unwittingly undermine their own efforts to achieve their stated aims.
  • Points to high impact solutions that benefit the system as a whole.

Q: How can a Systems Thinking approach be relevant to efforts to end homelessness?

A: Systems thinking can help policy makers and service providers see how their well-intentioned efforts to provide temporary shelter may actually undermine the system’s ability to end homelessness. It can increase their motivations to apply best practices and redesign the role of temporary shelters in achieving this goal.

Q: What are some of the successes you’ve seen?

A: We worked in Calhoun County, Michigan (pop: 100,000) to develop their community’s 10-year plan to end homelessness. The chair of project observed, “I learned the difference between changing a particular system and leading systemic change. You expanded the view of service providers so that they are now committed to helping the consumer overall instead of just ‘doing their own thing’ as individual organizations.” The plan won state funding and motivated the Homeless Coalition to vote unanimously to reallocate HUD funding from one service provider’s transitional housing program to a permanent supportive housing program run by another provider.

Q: What are the biggest challenges communities face when trying to apply Systems Thinking to homelessness and other entrenched social problems?

A: First, people naturally focus on their own contributions to the solution and assume that what others are (not) doing is the cause of the problem. Systems thinking challenges that view and encourages people to see how they contribute, albeit unintentionally, to the problem they are trying to solve. Second, one reason that best practices are not automatically embraced is that there are always payoffs to conducting “business as usual.” Sometimes people must choose between the benefits they currently get (such as helping people in crisis) and the goals they say they want to achieve (such as preventing crises from occurring in the first place).

Q: What advice do you have for communities working on plans to end homelessness?

A: First, embrace and organize a diverse group of stakeholders. In Calhoun County this included service providers, consumers, public sector leaders, and business leaders. All have something to contribute to ending homelessness. Second, use systems thinking to both analyze why homelessness persists in your community and identify the high leverage interventions that can end it.

Publication Date: 
Rockville, MD, USA