Direct messaging: Andrew Hening
Civic innovator, systems changer, homelessness ender
August 3, 2022
You have a new book, So You Want to Solve Homelessnes? Start Here. What inspired you to write it?
In early 2016, I started feeling really burned out at my job. I had been working on homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area for about six years, and despite running a workforce development program that was helping hundreds of people find employment and housing each year, locally, regionally, and across the state, homelessness kept getting worse.
At that time I was also halfway through the MBA program at UC Berkeley. I had started pushing my elective boundaries, and I ended up taking an amazing class on “systems thinking” with Professor Sara Beckman. It changed everything.
We often hear that many of the most difficult challenges in the world - racism, wealth inequality, climate change - are “systemic” in nature, but what does that really mean? When I graduated in 2017, I decided to tackle this question within the context of homelessness.
The result, So You Want to Solve Homelessnes? Start Here, is the book I wish I had been able to read on day one of this work. It is my best attempt to distill the wisdom of over a decade of on-the-ground experience providing front-line street outreach, managing a growing nonprofit, and serving in an executive leadership role in local government to answer three simple questions:
- Why has homelessness gotten so bad in the United States?
- Why have most efforts to solve it failed?
- What actually works?
Who should read it?
While my ultimate goal with this book is to reach civic changemakers - local electeds, senior government officials, nonprofit leaders, philanthropists - who control the policy and financial levers needed to solve homelessness, I worked very hard to use plain language, avoid jargon, and create a visual style that was accessible to anyone interested in this issue.
I’ve been thrilled that the feedback thus far, from experts to people with no prior experience, is that the book is comprehensive yet still a quick and easy read.
What’s your deeper background on homelessness?
I started working on homelessness in 2010 through an opportunity with AmeriCorps VISTA. Having had a parent who suffered with addiction most of my life and having that same parent also face long term unemployment following the Great Recession, I became really interested in “community development” (whatever that really means).
Since then I have provided front-line street outreach to people living in encampments, coordinated resource fairs, helped people find jobs, and even served in an executive leadership role in local government.
In 2019 I founded my own consulting firm, where I have primarily been focused on strategic planning, financial modeling, program design, and developing new supportive and interim housing units. My hope is to help civic leaders establish a clearer strategic / financial / programmatic framework for understanding and effectively responding to the homelessness that we see today.
Is homelessness new? What’s its evolution?
I was born in 1986. Millennials like me – Americans born between approximately 1980 and 1996 – have never known a United States without homelessness. Seeing mentally ill, substance-dependent people living in impoverished conditions on the streets has simply become a normalized part of our day-to-day lives, particularly for those of us living in larger metropolitan areas.
Homelessness – or the lack of a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence – has, of course, existed for a very long time. One could even make the case that for 95%+ of our species’ existence we were “homeless” hunter gathers wandering the wild continents of the Earth.
Of course, to equate the homelessness we see today to hunter gatherer tribes is ridiculous. But for that statement to be absurd, that must mean there is something distinct and unique about the current manifestations of homelessness.
Indeed, through writing this book I discovered that there have actually been multiple waves of homelessness throughout our nation’s history, from “hobos” in the late 1800s and early 1900s “riding the rails” in search of economic opportunity to sprawling “encampments” that emerged during the Great Depression.
In comparison to these earlier periods, we are currently living through what I refer to as “The Modern Homelessness Crisis,” which began in the early 1980s. It is largely characterized by the impacts of growing economic inequality and a significant number of disabled persons (mentally, physically, or both) living in inhumane, unsheltered conditions.
Choice and circumstance. How do people become homeless?
Rarely a week goes by in this line of work that I don’t hear some version of “There’s no point trying to solve homelessness. It’s just a choice.”
There is something really interesting about this assumption when you dig into the data.
For example, in a study dating back to the 1990s in New York City, researchers found that on any one day, 0.1% of the population of New York City was experiencing homelessness, but over the course of an entire year, 1% of the population experienced homelessness. In order for these numbers to work, that means New York City’s homeless population was “turning over” (i.e., completely replacing itself) ten times a year, or every 37 days.
If homelessness truly is a choice, then how do we reconcile the fact that the vast majority of people who “choose” to become homeless also decide to quickly resolve their homelessness? Sounds a little strange, right?
When it comes to the issue of choice, this is where I think there is so much value in systems thinking. In short, it creates a framework for seeing how the underlying “structure” of the system shapes the “choices” of the people within that system.
People want to maintain secure housing and shelter. That’s a basic human need. But they have to navigate the rules and circumstances of the broader society and economy to achieve that goal. Thus, as the broader socioeconomic conditions and support systems in this country have shifted over time, we have witnessed unique periods of homelessness shaped by those broader trends (i.e., by societal choices).
Why has homelessness gotten so bad in the United States?
A major focus of this book is using systems thinking to map the underlying causes of The Modern Homelessness Crisis, which culminates in a full two-page spread illustrating how nearly 20 seemingly disparate factors are all working together to push people to the street.
While there are clearly many issues at play, at its core, this analysis points to one fundamental dynamic: rent keeps going up, and for a wide variety of reasons – racism, pro-business economic policies, mental illness, addiction – people do not have the economic assets to cover that cost.
To put hard numbers to this, according to a study from Harvard University, between 1960 to 2016, adjusting for inflation, the median American rent payment rose 61% while the median renter’s income increased by only 5%.
Importantly, by using systems thinking to observe the broader historical context driving this imbalance, we can more easily see how recent “shocks” like the Great Recession and the COVID-19 Pandemic, which have each certainly made homelessness worse in their own right, are more accurately understood as exacerbations of deeper, more underlying problems, such as economic inequality.
What is the homeless industrial complex, and why is it not the solution?
One of the most powerful insights from systems thinking is that system components tend to configure themselves in predictable ways. These regular patterns are called “system archetypes.” When you familiarize yourself with these archetypes, it becomes clear that many of society’s biggest challenges are just different versions of the same underlying systemic patterns.
For example, over time the term “[insert industry] industrial complex” has come to connote nefarious and self-serving tendencies within a given economic sector whereby companies seek to perpetuate the problem they are claiming to solve, thus ensuring their financial well-being.
On many occasions over the last decade, I have witnessed angry community members alleging that my colleagues and I are in fact part of the “homeless industrial complex.” While this insinuation certainly stings, in all fairness, the social service sector as an “industry” is not above reproach.
To be very clear, in all of the time I have been working to end homelessness, collaborating with hundreds if not thousands of colleagues, I have not once met a person who is “pro-homelessness.” There is no grand, corrupt conspiracy to perpetuate homelessness for the enrichment of those working in this space. Every person I have met in this field is genuine in their desire to help people and make a difference. And frankly, I think social workers and care providers should be more highly compensated, given the stress, demands, and importance of this work.
Instead, as anyone who has worked in this field will know all too well, structural inefficiencies can emerge in social service systems, which do in fact make homelessness harder to solve. In short, in many communities “silos” often form when departments, organizations, and/or agencies operate independently without sharing information or coordinating activities. When communities are not coordinated and lack the ability to share data across partners, it becomes impossible to effectively measure what works and what does not. Because this inefficiency does not deliver results, communities can find themselves desperate to “try something new.” In the process, they launch new programs, which create new silos, thus perpetuating the cycle.
Is homelessness really solvable? What are some examples of where this has been achieved?
At the risk of oversimplifying what is a very complex challenge, the central thesis of my book is that The Modern Homelessness Crisis is really two different problems.
It is people experiencing short-term homelessness as a result of financial and/or relational crises (e.g., job loss, eviction, divorce, healthcare crisis), and it is long-term homelessness driven by physical and/or behavioral health challenges.
Thus, solving The Modern Homelessness Crisis requires three separate interventions.
First, we must improve the systemic factors driving the cost of living.
Second, communities must become more effective at preventing and/or rapidly rehousing people if they are facing or just became homeless.
Finally, our country must make long overdue investments in providing ongoing care for vulnerable people who need, in some cases, lifelong assistance.
To say all of this even more simply, “solving homelessness” requires reducing the inflow of new homelessness while dramatically increasing the outflow of people exiting homelessness.
Thanks to Community Solutions’ Built for Zero Campaign, which is a coalition of nearly 100 local communities across the United States and Canada, we know it is possible to solve homelessness at a community level. As of March 2022, Built for Zero has seen:
- 12 communities end veteran homelessness,
- 5 communities end chronic homelessness,
- 63 communities achieve quality, real-time data on homelessness, and
- 49 communities use that data to demonstrate a measurable reduction in homelessness.
This kind of success can even be achieved in large metropolitan areas. A recent New York Times article detailed how Houston, the nation’s fourth most populous city, reduced homelessness by 63 percent since 2011.
I believe many people, particularly governmental leaders, simply believe homelessness is unsolvable, and as a result, they do not make sufficient investments and/or policy changes to drive meaningful change. This, of course, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
My sincere hope is that So You Want to Solve Homelessness? Start Here can break this cycle by providing a comprehensive breakdown of the policies that got us to this point, as well as a roadmap for how communities can build momentum for lasting change. We know how to solve The Modern Homelessness Crisis, and failing to act is a moral failure of the highest order.