Reducing youth homelessness using Systems Practice

 
 
 In the late stages of the curriculum, the Systems Practice team reviews progress and brings new insights to the map.

In the late stages of the curriculum, the Systems Practice team reviews progress and brings new insights to the map.

As a member of the NorthSky Nonprofit Network, Connect_Cx was asked to lead a team of non-profit leaders from throughout Northern Michigan who work day to day on the challenges faced by homeless youth. Sponsored by Rotary Charities, we enrolled in an online Systems Practice curriculum which is developed by the Omidyar Group

We assembled the team and got to work on a the process of visualizing a system map that encompasses the causes, effects, factors and “actors” that contribute to the problems of youth homelessness.

“Homelessness is a complex societal issue. Navigating the system of services is complicated for homeless youth, who are especially vulnerable.
— Tina Allen, NWCOC Coordinator

CLASS IS IN SESSION

We start at the beginning, with a System Challenge: to identify the complex social issues tied to youth homelessness. From there, the team developed three statements that were to guide the group throughout the process:

  1. Guiding Star: a vision of the desired future state of the system
    "An ecosystem of rural and urban supports that prevent the underlying causes and/or address the immediate issues of youth homelessness"
  2. Near Star: a 5-10 year outcome that would constitute a significant step toward the Guiding Star statement
    "Every youth aged 14-24 in our 5-county region is housed in a way that meets their social, economic and behavioral needs."
  3. A Framing Question: helping the team to focus efforts to understand the system. 
    "What are the forces that create the homeless event and affect the ability of young adults to get and remain stably housed?"

These statements and questions are broad and open ended, by design. The thinking behind systems practice is to “open up your aperture” and include as many minds as possible in identifying the forces that impact the health of the system.

For more information, watch this short video "Why use a systems practice?"

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COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE

We then approached a diverse group of experts in all aspects of homelessness to help us define the factors that impact the system, so we could broadly define the causes and effects. We asked them to think in terms of the examples that they see in their day to day work, and to share their stories with the group once they'd placed their post-it notes on the table. From there, we re-arranged the post-its into more targeted clusters of subject categories (behavioral issues, economic issues, etc.).

Then we began the process of drawing the system in detail. We identified a core “vicious circle” which tends to be similar for all homeless youth: a life event which impacts their housing situation, followed by a housing loss; the current system contributes to a lack of safe/stable housing options, resulting in unstable housing which can cause another life event. 

 
 
 The initial system mapping exercise required a white board and post-its to manage a complex discussion and craft an initial draft.

The initial system mapping exercise required a white board and post-its to manage a complex discussion and craft an initial draft.

SYSTEM MAPPING

Having developed an initial draft, the team then took on the process of developing a map visualization that captured all of the connections between these complex factors. Using an online, cloud-based tool for system visualization, we built a map that showed the relationships that cause youth homelessness. The initial focus of the group, however, was centered around the negative aspects of the system within which they work. While this is productive (and even cathartic!), it only tells half the story.

Note that the positive factors that may be in place improve the system were not yet connected to the map, showing potential impacts that might improve the situation.

 
 

Initial system visualization in electronic format

 
 

GENERATING THE MODEL

It's been said that all models are wrong, but some are useful. In this case, the team's goal at the outset of the project was met: to identify the complex social issues tied to youth homelessness. The next part of the process involved hypothesizing potential points of leverage, indicated by the green elements in the map above.

To do this, we define four categories for leverage:

  1. Energy for Change
  2. Ripple Effects
  3. Bright Spots
  4. Mixed Bag (can be positive or negative based on the context)

We incorporated them into a large printout of the initial map, and engaged in another deep conversation around hypotheses: can we now propose potential projects which might impact the health of the system? If so, which agencies will be in charge of managing them and reporting back to the larger group?

The process of system visualization helped these organizations see the potential for change in a complex, interconnected social system. The narrative that we developed as a result of this process was simple and elegant:

The forces that create the homeless event are behavioral; the forces that affect the ability of young adults to get/remain stably housed are structural.

THEORY INTO PRACTICE

Locally, groups continue to meet on a weekly basis, informed by the map we'd developed as part of this curriculum. It supports the diverse coalition of nonprofit groups that have been assembled to administer the HUD grant, for which Connect_CX also provided design services. Our involvement continues on a pro-bono basis.

 
 
 The group continues to use the system map visualization as they move forward on multiple fronts.

The group continues to use the system map visualization as they move forward on multiple fronts.