Problem-solving: An innovative approach to addressing homelessness

Problem-solving: An innovative approach to addressing homelessness
By Marcy Thompson
Feb 20, 2019

In the midst of an affordable housing crisis and a shortage of dedicated homeless assistance resources, problem-solving strategies present a creative solution to a complex problem.

On a single night in January 2018, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) identified over half a million people as experiencing homelessness, a 0.3 percent increase from the year prior. Even more alarming, the greatest increase was among individuals, families, and youth sleeping outside and at other unsheltered locations.

A complex problem that can be solved

Last year, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) released an updated federal plan, Home, Together, which reinforces a vision to make homelessness rare, brief, and—when unpreventable—a one-time experience. Thanks to the leadership of many—and particularly USICH and HUD—over the last decade, homelessness is no longer considered simply a problem that we need to manage; it is viewed as a problem we can solve.

We know the solution to ending homelessness: housing. But, currently, we face a shortage of 7.2 million rental homes for renters with extremely low income, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

This lack of affordable housing directly results in more people experiencing homelessness. It increases the demand for limited homelessness response resources and limits pathways out of homelessness. Preserving and developing affordable housing and homeless-dedicated permanent housing resources must remain a top priority at both the federal level and community level.

Over the last decade, the homelessness field has grown smarter, more innovative, and more collaborative than ever before, yet we still have a hard road ahead. Through the implementation of coordinated entry systems and best practice strategies such as Housing First, low-barrier shelter, and prioritization, communities have already become more efficient at doing more with less to serve the most vulnerable households who were previously marginalized. However, efficiency does not automatically translate into efficacy.

In far too many communities, the way people access the homelessness response system and are assessed and referred for resources leads to individuals and families becoming homeless and remaining homeless for long periods of time—waiting for a specific intervention that has been deemed the ‘best match’ while other options are left unexplored.

An emerging strategy

An experience of homelessness—no matter how brief—is both traumatic and disruptive. We know that more housing resources are needed, however, we cannot afford to wait for the availability of sufficient housing resources to find solutions for people that are experiencing homelessness.

Some communities have started implementing a strategy commonly referred to as diversion in recent years. Diversion focuses on problem-solving conversations and providing limited financial assistance to people seeking assistance at the ‘front door’ of a community’s homelessness response system, which could be an emergency shelter or a coordinated entry system access point. This strategy seeks to identify and explore alternative options to help these households resolve their immediate housing crisis and avoid homelessness, at least for now.

Similar to diversion, a new strategy is emerging—one that takes the same skills learned from diversion to ensure that the homelessness experience is as brief as possible for individuals and families for whom homelessness could not be initially prevented. For the purposes of this blog, we’ll refer to this strategy (collectively with diversion) as problem-solving.

What is problem-solving?

The most critical element of problem-solving is a client-centered, housing-focused, and exploratory conversation that should happen with everyone regardless of perceived needs and barriers.

The goal of problem-solving is to explore creative, flexible, and safe, cost-effective solutions to quickly resolve the housing crisis—even if just temporarily—with limited or no financial support. During the initial conversation, skilled staff actively listen to individuals to identify potential safe housing options, such as returning to a prior residence, staying with friends or family, or securing a new tenancy. The staff then works with the household to determine the necessary steps to make that housing option a reality.

For example, the conversation may reveal that a currently-estranged family member has provided a good support network in the past. The problem-solving strategy may then focus on mediation or conflict resolution between the household and their family member to explore the possibility of staying, at least temporarily, with the family member.

In ICF’s work on this topic, we have learned that no one-size-fits-all approach exists for integrating problem-solving within a community. Local context and resources matter. Nonetheless, there are fundamental elements that should still be considered:

  1. Attempt problem-solving conversations with everyone, sometimes more than once.

    Do not assume who will or will not benefit from problem-solving. Assume that it will potentially work for everyone. It is also not a one-time conversation. Staff should continue to engage households in problem-solving conversations to explore safe housing options until the point at which they are housed.

  2. Provide light touch services beyond the conversation.

    Although it always begins with the exploratory conversation, problem-solving involves additional services including crisis resolution or family mediation; strengths-based case management; housing search and placement; landlord mediation; connection to mainstream resources, legal services, credit repair services; and other light touch services that provide the household with support to prevent an occurrence of homelessness or rapidly exit into a housed situation.

  3. Offer limited financial assistance only when necessary.

    Access to flexible financial resources for one-time costs that directly result in a housing connection can make problem-solving even more effective. This includes a security deposit, rental arrears, or other limited expenses like work uniforms and car repairs. However, this should be a last resort after other options have been exhausted and not something that is offered to every household. Moreover, there are many communities integrating problem-solving into their homelessness response systems that do not have any flexible resources that are able to have success without providing any financial assistance.

  4. Focus conversations on strengths, not barriers.

    Instead of focusing on the needs and barriers of a household, problem-solving shifts focus to understanding a household’s strengths and existing supports.

  5. Community-wide buy-in.

    Problem-solving should not be considered a standalone ‘program’ but instead as a practice that is integrated throughout the homelessness response system. To this end, it is important to seek community-wide buy-in throughout the system to ensure alignment and a common agenda.

  6. Train staff with the required skills.

    There are no standard prerequisite educational or employment requirements associated with problem-solving. However, the ideal staff person engaging in this activity should have empathy, active listening abilities, knowledge of community resources, and conflict resolution and mediation skills.

Why integrate system-wide problem-solving?

When seeking to integrate problem-solving into your homelessness response system, it’s important to not just focus on resource limitations. We know that homelessness resources are stretched too thin to respond to households with truly no alternative. Where shelter resources are consistently full with few people exiting into housing, the number of people sleeping in unsheltered locations increases.

But just as important is the fact that it is simply the right thing to do. Homelessness is a traumatic experience and the goal should be to help households avoid it whenever possible. When homelessness cannot be avoided, our goal should be to help households exit homelessness quickly, exploring all possible options.

Moreover, problem-solving seeks to empower households by having an unwavering respect for their strengths, goals, and preferences. The goal is to help the household regain a sense of control by focusing on their strengths and resiliency. When done right, the caseworker is not the one solving the problem—they are merely creating a space to help the client explore options that they may have been unable to think of alone while in the middle of a crisis and then providing the supports to make that solution possible.

How to get started

While not new, problem-solving is still an emerging strategy and we have much to learn. That said, communities need not wait until they have all of the answers—or even new resources to integrate these strategies into homelessness response systems.

Problem-solving should be thought of as an orientation or type of service that operates as part of the existing homelessness response efforts.

As more communities shift to a problem-solving orientation, best practices will emerge, and more guidance will materialize. We urge you to not wait for all of the answers. The key is simply starting:

  • Find other communities already implementing problem-solving and hear directly from them about how they got started, their successes and the challenges they’ve faced.
  • Review your community-wide and program specific policies and procedures and begin to make changes to how staff approach client engagement so that intake always starts with a problem-solving conversation and street outreach and case management in shelter are housing-focused and continuously exploring other options.
  • Engage an expert in this field that can help your community plan, design, and implement these strategies.

Meet the author
  1. Marcy Thompson, Principal, Homeless Services

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