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, February 4, 2017

The Story behind the Systems Practice Challenge

The last post started the Acumen sponsored Systemic Practice course connecting it back to the posts on the previously completed Financial Modeling for the Social Sector course. In these posts, systems thinking will take the lead.

The final post in the Financial Modeling series ended with developing an abstract financial model for the very real purpose of feeding the homeless. We reached a particularly abstract juncture as the focus was primarily on a still unrealized future.  

This post will take another look back, again quoting the systems thinking mantra for this blog, “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.” or a longer version “Remember that all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.” 

One reason models are wrong is they often don’t reflect continually changing on the ground or granular reality. Things in real life change, an RV that was to be donated for food delivery was used instead as a residence for two pregnant homeless women. Models are also wrong because they never fully reflect the entire set of systems involved. One system not examined until the end was the political one, or political reality. 

In January 2016, the mayor of Portland established a“safe sleeping” policy meaning that homeless, sleeping in a doorway, would not be woken up by authorities to be moved to another location. This has since been rescinded. The mayor had major sweeps done around town with 72 hours notice, expecting everyone to pack up and move on but without giving options where to go and sometimes taking everything they had. The supporting advocacy groups were extremely busy trying to find housing for hundreds of people or at least some place for them to pitch their tents and be safe.

Practical on the street, as well as the economic and empirical realities of the Financial Modeling course put a damper on unrealizable idealism and helped to add a focused, disciplined financial perspective. A general goal of systems thinking is to avoid so-called unintended consequences of the invariably bad type. Doing good, true good is not easy. We started though with a model and ended up with, while still wrong, a better model.

Striving towards economic growth and equity, through democratic processes such as participatory budgeting, still requires better economic understanding and a means of budgetary discipline. When Seattle youth voted through participatory budgeting to spend $300,000 out of a $700,000 budget, on programs to address homelessness, how closely was the manner in which the money was spent examined?

The term “Last Mile” used in the title of the project came from the public transportation sector concept that it is easier to get a thousand people from point A (Station) to point B  (Station) and back again than it is to get that same thousand people from point B to point B1, B2, B3, and so on for each individual destination. People may be willing to ride a bullet train or light rail but don’t because they can’t cover that last mile to their destination. 

Similarly, the unsheltered homeless often cannot cover the last mile to get to the food so the intention is to cover it for them but the difficulty of doing so is comparable to that of the public transportation challenge because of multiple changing sources and targets, a version of the Traveling Salesman Problem.  Perhaps invoking the use of apps for finding the most efficient routes. 

Creating a sustainable and scalable enterprise to feed unsheltered homeless proved itself to be embroiled in a number of complex operational systems, food distribution, transportation, and others. Multiple social systems were also operating, though often not meshing together well, a system (weak social community) of homelessness within the community, a system of economics creating 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 those community and institutional systems. 

The specific challenge was delivering food to those that were not only without means of sustainable nutrition but also without minimally decent, proper shelter of any type. There is an institutional system for food provision for those less fortunate, a primary source of which is systemic food wastage, a problem in its own right. One early idea was to develop apps like Cerplus, OkCupid, Leftover Swap and Spoiler Alert, which was built by MIT graduate students, to address food distribution challenges.

“Food waste happens not because businesses intend to waste the food but because they’re often disconnected from one another and lack a real-time solution,” says Ricky Ashenfelter, co-founder, and CEO of Spoiler Alert.

"It takes so much planning," said Al Brislain, CEO of Feeding America San Diego. "All the routes, all the-- you know, making sure the temperature is right, making sure that the food is still nutritious and fresh.”

Tax legislation in 2016 allowed business to benefit by getting tax deductions for donating food thereby hopefully preventing food waste. Inefficient solutions do little though to address the underlying causes of massive food wastage in the food and service industry which is said to happen because of consumer demand for price competition, depending upon massive overproduction to remain profitable.  Most programs do nothing to address this. Instead, they help to maintain overproduction through tax incentives created specifically to make surplus supermarkets viable. This food does not, however, readily reach the homeless.

Although the community food distribution system is available to the homeless, it is not necessarily accessible to them. Local pantries might bend over backward for a person with no address. 

“But that homeless person has to figure out a way to get the groceries back to camp or shelter and the street person is limited to what he can carry on a daily basis. It is very limited what kind of healthy ‘walking food’ the pantries carry”. - Jo

Besides a lack of choices, there is an inability to keep food fresh once it is distributed because it is given in quantities too large to be used in a timely enough manner. 

“They don't have much choice in food so they end up with five loaves of bread that go bad before they can use it.” - Jo

Overall, the most financially effective and sustainable remedy to address homelessness is providing homes rather than continually providing services which while necessary in the short run do not make a significant enough of an impact to bring about the needed change in the long run. The last post cited the study coming out of Calhoun County, Michigan

The most ironic obstacle to implementing the fundamental solution was the community’s very success in providing temporary shelters and supports.”

However, while building homes may be one of the best remedies for homelessness, lack of a home is not, it was proposed, the primary etiology of the detrimental and acute afflictions of homelessness. It is a lack of community, separation from deeply structured community or social relationship network that can be defined as civil society. 

Such a social structure can be taken for granted by most of us because we can make decisions to bypass such relationships but remain, even if only subconsciously, confident that they will be available if we need them. Including those community relationships that we forge through our economic transactions. While this does not encompass the whole truth of homelessness and as a model is wrong, it might provide an important insight.

While it is obviously good that a beneficial social effort is sustainable that does not lessen any immediate needs. The question of scaling to assist more people does not make current local efforts to meet such needs unhelpful. The financial model helped to prevent wasting resources on enterprises if unviable and to expand them if viable.

Extending services to help different organizations find people that might be helped further, moving individuals from the streets and camps to supportive, permanent housing options and back into the community was considered. A larger question then was whether this more focused approach would make a long-term difference for only some of the homeless or would a far less focused approach help more people if only temporarily.

Past Posts