This post was guest-authored by Elizabeth Bowen, Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York.

When we talk about the field of services for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness—where the field has been, where it is, where it’s going—one word I’m increasingly hearing is innovation.

But, what does this word really mean?

Is it just a buzzword, or does it indicate a meaningful shift in thinking and design for the homelessness services sector?

The actual definition of innovation is fairly straightforward. Per an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, an innovation is a process or outcome that’s both novel and an improvement on the status quo. I will admit that there’s a part of me, though, that instantly interprets the word innovation as someone telling me, “What you and your peers and collaborators have been doing is not good enough.

Many people and organizations do excellent work in homelessness services, day in and day out (and overnight, as homeless services are definitely not a 9-to-5 thing). Providers work with homeless and housing insecure families to make sure children’s education is not disrupted, they do their best to keep shelters clean and safe, they go out in all kinds of crazy weather to do outreach, build relationships, and connect people with services. And these are just a few examples. All in all, I think most homeless service providers do a fine job with very limited resources, and sometimes their work is downright heroic. So, I get a little defensive when I hear the i-word heaved in their direction.

These were some of the questions and reservations on my mind when I had the opportunity to co-teach a class last summer for Social Impact Fellows, a collaboration between the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, School of Management, and Blackstone LaunchPad. In its inaugural year in 2017, eight MSW and eight MBA students worked in cross-disciplinary pairs to complete an innovation project at a local socially-minded business or nonprofit. Kelly Patterson, from the School of Social Work, Tom Ulbrich, from the School of Management, and I co-taught the classroom portion of the fellowship, which included many discussions around the meaning of terms like social enterprise, social entrepreneurship, social impact…and, of course, the i-word.

The experience of co-teaching the class led me to a deeper reflection on innovation and what it means for homeless services. My fear is that when people think about innovation and homelessness, they will think that they have the answer, or even that there is a single answer to ending homelessness, just waiting to be discovered by the next innovator bright and creative enough to see it. As a researcher, it is apparent to me that homelessness is a complex social problem. It has no single cause, and I do not think it has a single solution. It will not be conclusively solved in a hackathon or in an afternoon’s design thinking lab.

In teaching the Social Impact Fellowship class, though, I realized there were ways I could talk and teach about innovation and homelessness without oversimplifying either. One of the topics we covered in class was systems change, the idea that any innovation should be considered within the context of larger systems and ultimately that creating social impact means working with an eye toward comprehensive systems change, rather than focusing only on particular programs or institutions. There were numerous examples from homeless services that I could draw from to illustrate systems change, such as coordinated entry—the redesigning of homelessness services for an entire city or geographic area around a centralized, person-centered intake and assessment process. I also pointed to Housing First as an example of a system-wide and research-driven paradigm shift in homeless services, as insightfully described in Deborah Padgett, Benjamin Henwood, and Sam Tsemberis’ book Housing First: Ending Homelessness, Transforming Systems, and Changing Lives. This book and the Housing First story it tells contain another key lesson about innovation: The best, and arguably the only truly viable, solutions emerge from listening to and raising up the voices of the people directly affected by the social problems we seek to address.

As it happened, three of the 2017 Social Impact Fellowship student teams’ projects were related to housing and homelessness. One team assisted social service agency and supportive housing provider Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center in developing a screen-printing business as a social enterprise to generate revenue while helping clients build employment skills. Another team worked with bicycle and active transportation advocates Go Bike Buffalo to pilot a program to provide bikes, helmets, and basic cycling training for homeless and low-income people to use as transportation to work and appointments. And, a third group researched and created policies and structures for a new housing program at Belmont Housing Resources for Western New York for young people aging out of foster care.

None of these projects solved homelessness, of course. But they did augment and shift current services and program models in exciting, needed, and—dare I say—innovative ways. When the class concluded, I was left feeling proud of what the homeless services sector has already accomplished, hopeful about the system-level changes currently underway, and optimistic about the potential for future advances.

The Grand Challenge to End Homelessness continues. Innovators welcome.

Elizabeth_Bowen_Small (1)Blog Post Author: Elizabeth Bowen, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Her research focuses on the relationship between housing and health. She is also the university’s faculty liaison for the National Center’s National Homelessness Social Work Initiative. In this role, she co-facilitates the New York-New Jersey Regional Network. Read her previous blog post here.


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