The power of program design: housing first

Housing First

Many people hear “design” and think of tangible things like clothing or furniture or posters. But since design is really about thinking through the needs of your audience and how to meet those needs, then intangible things like processes and services can (and should) be designed, too. Program design is still design, and is arguably a larger part of the social and public sector than the design of things.

Do you have a diagram of how your programs are designed, how do people move into and through and out of your programs? There’s a classic business article called “Staple Yourself to an Order.” The premise is to follow the flow of information and process through your organization, as if you were stapled to an order from a customer. This way, you can identify points of inefficiency. You can do that same by figuratively strapping yourself to a client of your services to see where your process might be improved.

(Draw Toast has some great templates for mapping your learnings from these exercises.)

I suspect that advocates for the homeless went through such service and process design exercises to develop the “Housing First” strategies currently being implemented, and debated.

Traditionally, housing agencies have insisted that homeless people address issues such as addiction, mental health, and anger management before occupying public housing. This approach made some bureaucratic and moral sense, but wasn’t reducing the rates of homelessness.

Advocates are re-evaluating this approach and finding that it’s easier to tackle other issues once a homeless person has a safe and consistent place to live. And it makes sense–think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s hard to work on your esteem and self-actualization when your safety and well-being are at risk.

Does Housing First work? It’s one part of the formula that has helped New Orleans reduce their homeless veteran population to zero. Other cities such as Los Angeles are  adopting the approach, with support from the U.S. Veterans’ Administration. Sometime, a seemingly small change like the order of steps in a process can make a huge difference in your outcomes and impact.

So go strap yourself to a client or customer and see what you learn.

(Image courtesy of Flikr through Creative Common License.)

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