By: Kevin Finn

An important part of improving our homeless services system is getting input directly from people who have experienced homelessness. At events that we periodically hold, which we refer to as “Homeless Think Tanks,” we benefit from hearing directly from homeless people about how our homeless system works well, and how it can be improved.

A Homeless Think Tank basically consists of three parts. First, I do a walkthrough of the elements that make up the system (prevention, street outreach, shelter, supportive housing, etc.) and explain how those services are intended to move people out of homelessness and back to independence and self sufficiency. The second part of a Homeless Think Tank is giving those in attendance the opportunity to describe how the system has or has not met their needs or worked as intended. The third part of the event gives attendees the opportunity to share ideas, to provide us with answers to the question: “What one thing, what one service or help, if it had been available to you at the right moment, would have kept you from becoming homeless, or would have helped you out of homelessness?” The suggestions we receive serve to illuminate the sometimes simple, sometimes complex, realities of homelessness.

As a former Street Outreach Worker, I have years of experience working face-to-face with homeless people, and hearing their needs and wishes. That experience is critical to overseeing our local homeless services system, but I recognize that my experience may be somewhat dated. Homelessness is far from a static issue, with a myriad of constantly evolving factors putting people at risk of homelessness. This is why it is so important to host such focus groups, to make sure that we, as the coordinators of the homeless services system, listen to those we mean to serve.

We’ve done two Homeless Think Tanks this month, and the results are always so insightful. It is overwhelming just how difficult it is to be homeless; how hard homeless people must work, day in and day out simply to exist. Being homeless is exhausting. I am also amazed at how willing people are to tell their story, even to a room full of strangers, if doing so might help someone else, someone who might be homeless in the future. People generously share the most intimate details of their lives on the outside chance that doing so will help someone else. Most importantly, I am amazed by their intelligence, their ability to figure out multiple complex systems, and to give extremely valuable input on the complex system that we oversee.

By engaging directly with the homeless community and listening to their feedback, Think Tanks help us improve our system, improve coordination of services, and understand the varied, specific, and urgent needs of the people we serve.