This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Modeling the Last Mile to Feed the Homeless part 1

“Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.”

“Remember that all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.”

Putting this upfront, what has become a systems thinking mantra for this blog, because this post will explore a different type of model, a financial one but the concept still holds.

The model to be explored comes from the Financial Modeling for the Social Sector course from Philanthropy University powered by the  Berkeley Hass School of Business. The financial model discussed here will again be wrong. The question this post will explore is how useful is it? It proved definitely useful as a learning tool going far beyond financial modeling. In fact, there is a great deal to understand before getting to the financial numbers.

One lesson of the course was to put an economic and empirical damper on unrealizable idealism. Cold water also came from the practical on the street realities of the particular proposed social enterprise effort. There were other positive and valuable lessons to be learned, through insights from my study partner, Jo Foraker, who took the lead in suggesting the type of social enterprise which we would model; a food truck dedicated to serving the homeless.

Jo lives in Portland, Oregon, and works with what the homeless call the Red Barn through the Anawim Christian Community, a religious organization that is in part, along with other groups like Boots on the Ground, of the Advocacy5 group which is dedicated to serving the homeless. The City of Portland is in Multnomah County. There were 1,914 homeless in shelters and 1,887 homeless in camps or on the streets which are nearly half of the population according to the most recent census. This and other data is on the Multnomah County homeless statistics web page.  Beyond these statistics are various perspectives that different organizations and institutions, including cities, have of the homeless, which focus on the condition of the person, or other social factors. There are shelter homeless, camp homeless and street homeless each seeking different food options. There are far more camps in the area than there are shelters, with a lot of camps in certain areas, especially those the city has designated, and the camps move around a lot.

As noble as this may sound, the course made the financial hard climb to overcome challenges all too apparent. With efforts to create new community paradigms, this has been seen as a good thing. Despite a general liberal, idealism striving towards economic growth and equity, through democratic processes such as participatory budgeting, it has also sought better economic understanding and means of budgetary discipline. This latest course will hopefully help add a focused, disciplined financial perspective. This is done in keeping with a general systems thinking goal to avoid unintended consequences of the invariably bad type. Doing good, real good is not easy.

Though we worked together on the same general model, Jo and I took different pathways based on our own perspectives while helping each other with guidance. My interest, as usual, was in the larger systems and seeing how they could potentially be made to work better. Her interest was in feeding the homeless. 

More precisely, she wants to feed (and house though the focus here will be on feeding) the homeless in a financially sustainable manner that has the potential for such a social enterprise to be expanded or scaled up. Though this was, in reality, an educational exercise, numerous organizations were testing hoped-to-be made real world ideas. We decided to push the concept and focus on those not institutionally sheltered though not all shelters provide food so there is still a need there. 

There are multiple systems operating, which as will be seen often don’t mesh together well. There is a system (social community) of homelessness, outside of any institutions. There is a system of economics that creates that homelessness (perhaps as an unintended consequence but nonetheless), an institutional system to address different detrimental aspects of homelessness, and systems of existence among the homeless (social complex) in interacting with that institutional system. 

One institutional system is for food provision for those less fortunate, a primary source of which is systemic food wastage. This is a problem in its own right and worldwide, in places as far away as Jordan, where Family Kitchen Truck takes leftovers from hotel Ramadan banquets to those in need. Unfortunately, this system, as with most, does not fit seamlessly with the needs of the homeless. The social enterprise being designed here then is an endeavor to overcome, at least in part, some of those disconnects. 

In Portland, farmers and manufacturers donate food and people donate money to the Oregon Food Bank or OFB. The OFB oversees both the Oregon Food Bank Harvest Shares and  Oregon Food Bank Community Baskets. Local food pantries can buy food from the OFB by the pound for a lot less than they could buy it elsewhere.

Community Basket and Harvest Share are open once a month having just whatever the OFB has too much of. Harvest Shares and Community baskets are open to anyone. The pantries have a selection of all food groups. One just lines up and gets food. Community Baskets, and Harvest Shares as well as pantries, however, are not particularly well designed though for the homeless. 
Some Harvest Shares and Community Baskets are once a month and have no pantry. Other locations have pantries but don't have Harvest Shares and Community Baskets on the same day as it takes volunteer staff all day to do one or the other. So the distribution points of Harvest Shares and Community Baskets are never the same time as a pantry is open.

The pantries screen everyone that comes in to get food. They don't vet the screening taking people's word for it that they are at or below the National Poverty Level. Some pantries are zip code restricted. If you don't live in that zip code, you can't get food there. But those that come still have to buy it. 

Jo goes from one local food pantry to another, stopping then at some homeless camps and giving out food. She goes to the Red Barn, thirty-seven miles one way from her base of operation, and drops off most of the food collected. This is frequently necessary because of frozen food needing refrigeration. This also means donating gas as well as wear and tear on her vehicle.

I have seen people come into the RED BARN who have not eaten in a couple of days. 

I don't go to more than 3 pantries in a day because my SUV will not hold more than that. You should have seen me yesterday, We could no longer get the food cases in my vehicle so we took the packages out of the boxes and stuffed them in all nooks and crannies. You could not get another one in. I did leave room to see out the rear view mirror, but I was stuffed.
There seems to be plenty of food, it is just difficult to get it distributed. It is very difficult to get the homeless 3 squares a day. - Jo

Currently, there are 16 pantries that buy the food from the OFB, which they give away to people in need. Jo tries to pick up their surplus as they are required to buy so many pounds of food and have no choice of what they get. This again includes perishables and nonperishables.
All pantries from which she collects from are only open a few hours on certain days. So she created a list of the pantries' addresses down on one side and the hours and days of the weeks for when they were open across the top. 

Jo is not trying to develop an institutional solution to feeding the homeless. Though she may not have thought of it this way, she can be seen as an asset based in her community, in keeping with the principles of Asset Based Community Development discussed in the last two posts. The potential to develop further along such ABCD lines will also be explored.

Next Part 2

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