Ending Homelessness through Systems Change
Author: Linda Xiong, THN Systems Change Manager
At Texas Homeless Network, I work on a team called the Systems Change Team. To me, the naming of this team is very unique because it really gets at the concept or theory behind Coordinated Entry in the Texas Balance of State Continuum of Care, which is “systems change”.
Systems change was the center of my studies in the Master of Sustainable Peacebuilding program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but I slowly realized that I was always thinking in systems. To me, systems change is about taking the time to find and address the root causes of social issues. I learned the most about systems change from studying environmental sustainability practices – for example, how a forest regenerates after a natural fire. And so much of environmental sustainability can be applied to the social sciences! In this post, I want to highlight the meaning of “systems change” and how Coordinated Entry is an example of “systems change”.
First, what does “systems change” really mean? Social issues, like poverty and environmental degradation, continue to persist today despite efforts to solve them. These efforts often look outside of the problem for solutions, like providing food aid to a country experiencing a drought. Instead, Donella Meadows, an environmental scientist and educator who researched and applied systems thinking to global problems, argues that instead of viewing causes (and thus, solutions) of problems as outside of the system, causes of problems should be viewed as systems problems. And to view these as systems problems, we have to take a step back and understand the system itself.
In her book, “Thinking in Systems”, Meadows defines a system as “a set of things… interconnected in such a way that they [produce] their own pattern of behavior over time” (p. 2). Systems also include three key components: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose. An example of a system would be a high school with elements like students, teachers, and staff members. In this example, an interconnection would be teachers teaching students through courses, and a purpose would be receiving a diploma.
By studying the arrangement of these three components, we can then “understand how systems work, what makes them produce poor results, and how to shift them into better behavior patterns” (p. 3). Systems also impact other systems. This adds complexity not only when understanding them, but also when intervening to address issues.
I won’t go into the details of the components that make up the housing crisis response system, because it is very complex. Instead I want to highlight Coordinated Entry as an intervention that makes us view problems as systems problems and shift systems into better behavior patterns.
Coordinated Entry makes us view problems as systems problems, because people experiencing or at-risk of homelessness may not know where to go to access resources or how to access those resources. They then navigate between different providers to find services or programs that best fit their needs. This is often inefficient because they spend their own resources to contact different agencies, may have to share their story repeatedly, and may not be connected to an intervention most appropriate for them. Also, this generally comes with a “first come, first serve” service prioritization model with little consideration given to the prioritization based on severity of need.
Coordinated Entry shifts the system towards better behavior patterns because all providers are coordinating as one system rather than as separate systems towards collective impact. When the access, assessment, and referral processes are standardized across all providers in an entire Continuum of Care, people experiencing or at-risk of homelessness can readily find and navigate crisis intervention assistance and are prioritized for and matched with the right housing intervention as quickly as possible.
It’s helpful for me to take a step back and see Coordinated Entry as an intervention to the housing crisis response system we currently have. While Coordinated Entry is new in its implementation, I now have a much better understanding of its intent, shifting the system towards better behavior (as Meadows described above), and of my team’s mission.
Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. D. Wright (Ed.). White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.