Putting the heart into HEARTH
Peg Giffels, Springwire’s Deputy Director, attended the 22nd Annual conference on Ending Homelessness in Yakima, WA last month and returned with expanded knowledge about key initiatives in federal and local programs. In a previous post she described the connections she made at the conference within the community of housing advocates. Here she shares her reflections on a session she attended about the HEARTH Act.
I arrived at the statewide Conference on Ending Homelessness organized by the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance in Yakima last month with a desire to soak up as much knowledge as possible. I selected my sessions with an eye toward breadth of knowledge: covering topics I’d heard referenced back at the Springwire office, like “Coordinated Entry” and “HMIS”. As a newbie to the field of homelessness and poverty reduction, I was looking forward to making sense of the new terms and figuring out how or if they were connected. All of the sessions I attended contributed to a broader understanding, and one session in particular stood out. “Implementing the HEARTH Act: Preparing for Systems Changes” stood out because of the emphasis that the presenters put on the systemic nature of the changes mandated by the act. I found answers to some of my questions about how this stuff was connected.
The lead presenter, Katharine Gale, outlined the key systems changes called for in the HEARTH Act. HEARTH, signed into law in 2009, is federal legislation that mandates sweeping changes in the delivery of services to homeless individuals and families. Out of the HEARTH Act spring efforts like cross-agency data sharing and outcomes measurement (Aha, I thought, that’s where HMIS fits in!), one-stop service centers for clients (Yes, Coordinated Entry – another term defined and connected to its source!), and a shift to rapid rehousing (ooh, a new term: “progressive engagement”). For a fuller view of the presentation and to soak up more of Gale’s expertise on the topic, see the slides here .
The big “aha” came for me when Gale described HEARTH as “implementation at a systems level that drives thinking on how agencies work”. Now I was on more familiar territory. Having been trained as a family therapist, I know about systems. In a system, different functions work together toward the same end. In a strong system it’s clear who the client is, what the desired end product or result is, what resources go into making that product or result, and how each part of the system contributes to the product or result. The trick with systems-level change is to keep a sense of the “whole” while translating separate to-do’s to the individual implementer level. In the example of HEARTH, a case manager at an agency in the midst of shifting to a coordinated entry model can lose sight of why the changes are necessary or even desirable, and begin to resist change. When reminded of the “whole” of coordinated entry being a way for service providers to act like a system to simplify and speed up access for clients, the case manager is more likely to be on board.
Gale, as an advocate for systems change, issued a challenge to the room: “Get on board with the clearer goals and new strategies in HEARTH, come together to create joint results.” She advised practitioners to keep a sense of the whole picture, and further challenged: “You have a choice – you can comply with HEARTH because HUD made you, or you can do it to create desired results more effectively through coordinated efforts.”
I appreciated this presentation because it offered me the immediate value of learning the vocabulary of the field. More important for me since has been the lasting reminder of the value of a systems perspective. When I talk with leaders at other nonprofits, I see organizations large and small being faced with challenges that parallel those issued by Gale: You can shift your ways of working because the economy (or a specific funder or your boss…) made you, or you can do it in order to create desired results more effectively through coordinated efforts. We are being challenged to be nimble and flexible about how we do our work and deliver our services because why we do this work is more important than ever.
Deputy Director, Springwire