Fargo-Moorhead Coalition for Homeless Persons

Report date
February 2016

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

Much credit for 2015 progress goes to our Coordinator. Hiring Cody Schuler as the CARES Coordinator in March 2015 and positioning him as "command central" for communication, document management, and change management made a significant difference in our forward momentum. Cody has exceptional community organization and mediation skills. He mastered a steep learning curve quickly and built solid relationships across the CARES region. Other core team members were experiencing burnout from striving to keep the project on track while doing their other full-time duties. The project manager with whom we contracted could no longer give the project the time it needed. While vital for the interface with the technology groups, she also did not have the interest or skill to do the stakeholder education and support that was needed. Cody has the strengths and drive that move systems change projects forward. His skill and commitment reenergized the rest of the core team. Another key element is his reach across the hierarchy from front-end providers through decision-makers: This was an area of weakness for us previously.
Increased stakeholder adoption and buy-in significantly accelerated progress. Adoption of the innovations has gone beyond mandated service providers to encompass homeless service consumers, community members, and non-mandated service providers. In meetings, conversations now make natural and integrated references to CARES and its components, reflecting comfort and acceptance of the innovation. This is connected to #1, the addition of a skilled coordinator, and to the results of year one pilot efforts that have demonstrated real success in getting people, prioritized by need, housed faster and more appropriately. The adoption by stakeholders includes a high level of enthusiasm from funders, particularly the United Way of Cass Clay, which took the radical step of shelving a set of proposals and bringing together a group of CARES participants to design a Housing Navigation program unrestricted by geopolitical boundaries, dedicated to serving the hardest to house, and fully integrated with the CARES innovation. This UWCC funded program begins in March 2016. It is one of the gaps we identified in the innovation process.
From the beginning of our project, Org Code consultation and advanced training have been important to our progress. The tools provided by Org Code are a significant help in requesting and promoting region-wide adoption of shared values, forms, and processes. The effects of clear and concise "train the trainer" provided at the beginning of 2015 caused some previously reluctant stakeholders to adopt the innovations with enthusiasm. Several providers, including the CARES Coordinator, attended a week-long Housing First leadership training in ending homelessness in West Virginia with Org Code's Iain De Jong, gaining renewal of purpose as well as new information. Only rarely do consultants fulfill their promise to the level that Org Code has achieved. In addition to modeling the how data and narrative (story) can be shaped to interact with highly persuasive results, the company’s open-handed sharing of resources and passion for ending homelessness have influenced and uplifted our team members. As a result, the team has passed those traits to other stakeholders.

Key lessons learned

Command central is critical. We were floundering in fairness – trying to ensure consensus with every step; sharing leadership among as many as six people at once and giving our project manager conflicting instructions as a result. We learned that it is critical to have major players as early adopters, but equally important to have a defined hierarchy for task completion. Further, the Coordinator, our command central, must have superior interpersonal skills in order to lead from behind and adroitly navigate many strong personalities. We are not sure if this represented failure or if, per the innovation model, we needed to achieve a level of frustration in order to agree on a solution. It took some time for everyone to agree that community organizing was the desired skill set and that knowledge of homelessness and human services was a peripheral rather than a central requirement.

Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving

Collaboration is central to all we do. Inclusivity was improved in 2015 through a helpful set of focus groups. Resourceful is the most important and relevant process element of the past year. Innovation is inherent in the activities of the FM Coalition, but we lacked a means of expression. It's helpful now to have a model and to have language for the stages we experience, yet we innovate regardless. The aborted development process with Bowman (late summer 2015) generated creative thinking, re-engagement of stakeholders, brought new advisors to the table, and stimulated intensive nationwide networking. There was no dilly-dallying. The result was several ideas were explored, two moved forward and we have narrowed to one solution that will meet almost all the needs and requirements of the original project, with additional functionality that will be of use for supervisors and evaluators. The Homelink solution furthers our goals to appropriately house people faster, supporting them until stable, and to accurately track the steps and the outcomes without undue regard for geopolitical boundaries.

Other key elements of Community Innovation

The project has continually reinforced that we see everything as an opportunity; that setbacks can be addressed by information gathering; and that we need to reach out nationally to find solutions and not be parochial in our thinking.
A note on being Inclusive: Our focus groups with homeless consumers affirmed the direction of the innovative process. Long-time users (consumers) used to the way things have been done (first come, first served) expressed the most reluctance to embrace the innovation.

Understanding the problem

Clarity has resulted from our process primarily through gap identification. Homeless service is a part of the human services spectrum that has grown up without much planning or articulation of the underlying philosophy. It filtered down from the federal government and up from faith community responses to need, but there is not unilateral agreement in the U.S. that homes are a human right or that everyone deserves as many chances as they need. The Housing First movement, which is at the heart of our project, has sparked an evolution (and possibly a revolution) in homeless services. We are determined to make our region a model of rural Housing First philosophy.
We learned that if we articulate and formalize the role of innovation as the cornerstone of the FM Coalition we will increase the likelihood and speed of adoption by both direct and indirect stakeholders.
We learned that while there remains some value in the long-term Project Community Connect program (a national model program), the needs presented there are ongoing and so the collective response needs to be on-going rather than once or twice a year. See the section "What else would you like to share with us?"

If you could do it all over again...

Our original technology vendor was not transparent with us and consequently delayed our process, knowing that they did not want to do the project and knowing that they intended to address some or most of what we were seeking to develop in their next major rollout. Had they been forthcoming, we could have helped them refine requirements for the rollout and sought another solution much sooner. Our advice is if the project involves a technology solution, be firm, skeptical, and have a knowledgeable project manager. Also, seriously consider and research doing local development from scratch, rather than working with national vendors.

One last thought

Articulate and formalize innovation as the cornerstone of the FM Coalition and make the service access of Project Community Connect on-going, rather than sporadic: These insights and stakeholder support for their further development motivated us to develop another community innovation proposal. We are inspired by what we’ve learned from this process; BushConnect, and working with our advisor. We have hope that the homeless service system in our region is truly and permanently changed for the better and though we are not done, we have hope for continuing an innovative process to fill the remaining gaps.