Fargo-Moorhead Coalition for Homeless Persons

Report date
February 2015

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

Of first importance was the establishment of shared governance across geopolitical regions (West Central MN Continuum of Care; ND Continuum of Care; FM Coalition for Homeless Persons; and White Earth Tribal Nation) with guiding principles, a signed memorandum of understanding, and bylaws. Subsequently, the Governance Board was instrumental in moving forward action items including establishing assessment and access sites, policies and procedures for the partners and education plans for training, website, and more. The partners have agreed to the oversight of this board and this is the key to implementing coordinated assessment as a whole. This board is also very active, meeting twice a month. The board includes both elected (voting) and advisory members who follow up and complete action items assigned or bring them back to the board for help or additional guidance. There are also several committees bringing their work to the board for review/approval.
Progress has been slow on moving CARES related documentation for approval; however there are important concerns over special groups, such as Domestic Violence providers and tribal entities that are being thoughtfully and thoroughly worked through. The CARES project is at the forefront of defining policies regarding these groups and coordinated assessment. We are told that several communities and states are looking to our example for guidance. We completed service provider training in the new assessment tools, piloted those tools, and achieved partial rollout of the tools across the service area. Our consultant, Iain De Jong of Org Code, also trained and certified about 17 assessment trainers so we are able to continue providing this required training at minimal cost.
In the past year, we have held dozens of presentations and community conversations about the CARES project; its role in reducing, preventing and ending homelessness, and the communities' role in facilitating those outcomes. Based on media coverage, anecdotal responses, and funds raised we believe the community has a greatly heightened state of awareness about homelessness and a greatly increased will to address the issue with permanent solutions, including additional
affordable housing. We also secured professional project management at the outset of the project and that expertise has been invaluable as we have negotiated with Bowman Systems and Wilder Research Institute for the development of crossborder information sharing and other technology-based solutions to gathering and reporting data on homelessness. We have made significant progress in a couple of areas--adding tools to the HMIS database. Our experience in securing
estimates and timelines for the data bridge have been less successful, but we continue to press the developer and seek alternatives.

Key lessons learned

Communication on a project of this magnitude is a constant struggle, especially getting the right level of information to the right people. The geographic challenges and the rural/urban differences also have been difficult to navigate. We continue as
a team to review what’s working and adjust the communication plan as needed to meet the need. While this is far from perfect, the flexible approach has helped alleviate provider concerns. Recognizing that there will always be late adopters
and there will always be complaints about communications, we have tried multiple approaches. One of the mid-year steps was to move away from the traditional format for reporting on projects; moving instead to a newsletter format and lots of
bullet points with short updates, along with strong encouragement to circulate the newsletter through individuals organizations. While this has been effective, adequate communication at the highest levels of management has remained elusive. Directors tend to send mid-level staffers to the meetings, but don't appear to get back enough clear briefing to be well-informed. We have been addressing these situations one on one.
Failure: A diversion plan is a necessary part of coordinated assessment but its parameters were under-developed and its complexity misunderstood in the original formulation of the project. A diversion screening tool was designed and a small
pilot project involving two Moorhead emergency shelters and the FirstLink 211 system was conducted. The pilot was halted after about 48 hours. A tense but successful debrief with First Link was conducted to document pain points and preserve the relationship.
We have since held about six discussions dissecting the experience and determining a way forward. Two key findings were better training and documentation for the 211 staff and the need to have all shelters participating, at least in FargoMoorhead. This was a very important lesson for the team. It is recommended that Diversion move forward as a separate project once Bowman implements the data bridge. The workarounds to support this pilot without the bridge in place were too cumbersome to support the pilot successfully. Our dependence on technology hindered progress but also generated creative approaches and helped us find gaps in the system.

Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving

Among the project team we each answered this differently. One said: "Collaborative has by far been the most important and valuable in identifying the need to address domestic violence and tribal concerns. While it also slows the process down, the
process and documents are better for the additional collaboration."
Another said: "I think Resourcefulness has been the most valuable aspect of the project, at least for this first year of implementation. We have had to continually redraw the communications plan, education plan, flowcharts of how things would
work. We had to find workarounds so we could move ahead while the technological support lagged; present an unified and expert voice to the community even when we weren't quite sure or all on board; and mediate, confront, and survive conflict at nearly every meeting -- then come together to do it again the next day."
A third made a similar statement about Inclusiveness, though we agree that this element has been the most neglected in some ways. Although many stakeholder groups have been informed about the project, far fewer have been engaged in the work. Too many contributions of homeless people have been anecdotal and informal.

Other key elements of Community Innovation

Good Intentions: The basic/desire need of social services providers to help their clients has been the lowest common denominator for successful innovation. This is the common goal that drives these providers to work together to answer tough questions and implement change that makes sense.
Trust: The F-M area's history of collaboration learned from flood fighting, and the history and reputation of its Homeless Coalition have helped us across many obstacles and conflicts.
Visibility: The economic boom and resulting increase in people experiencing homelessness led to the FM Sheltering Churches project (temporary shelter in area churches during the winter for the men and women who cannot be accommodated at the emergency shelters because of high numbers). This in turn led to the much greater visibility and awareness of homelessness as a community issue and of the possibility of permanent solutions.

Understanding the problem

The need we identified is for streamlined consumer access to the homeless services system and a way for service providers to have secure data sharing across geopolitical barriers. The process revealed holes in the proposed system; especially assumptions by partners about what a+b=c means in the context of their programs. We learned that a shared philosophy and guiding principles does not translate into shared strategies for implementation.
Identifying gaps in the process has been crucial for the continual development of innovations. The need to find some way of having all consumers enter the system via a single point lead to the First Link discussions and the short-lived pilot. Full
implementation of technology-supported diversion is now seen as a process improvement and a follow on project due to the complex nature and its dependency upon a robust data bridge. Other highlighted gaps include the 1) the availability of borderless housing case management; 2) concerns about privacy and release of information for which we now have a technical plan and a
release of information that has passed legal scrutiny; 3) and the degree of our technology dependence to achieve our goals.

If you could do it all over again...

Calm down, things will move much more slowly than you’d like but it will be better and stronger because of it. Take the time to create more visual learning and communication tools and talk to consumers experiencing homelessness in a formal manner from Day 1. Had we known this from the start we would have avoided a lot of personal stress and some interpersonal conflict. Our communication plan would have better set the stage for both pilots and rollouts.

One last thought

While this process is slow and difficult to control, holding Bowman and Wilder to task has been immensely helpful with moving forward and identifying hard dates to plan against. While this has led to some uncomfortable conversations, it’s absolutely vital to implementation to ask tough questions and insert accountability. We ought to have hired a project coordinator, as well as the technical project manager, immediately. The stress for several of us of doing this in additional to our regular responsibilities has been very challenging. We needed someone to take on more of the detail tasks so we could focus on capacity building by having more face to face conversations with senior managers.