We can deliver services to thousands of people experiencing homelessness through one library branch already. How many could we reach if this program existed at every branch…?

I don’t often talk about the work that I do, in depth, sometimes because I can’t due to contract obligations, and other times because it feels like “bragging.” I think, because much of my work is collaborative, talking about “my work” somehow implies that I’ve done it all myself, which is clearly not the case, since my work only “works” when I’m collaborating with others!

This time, though, I feel compelled to share. Since last winter, I’ve been contributing as a very small part of a collaborative effort led by staff inside the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, the LA Public Library system, and LAHSA. The idea is simple: bring multiple services to places where people experiencing homelessness are likely to congregate, and get them what they need to move forward, or at minimum, stay safe and healthy.

THE SOURCE has been an iterative experiment. Each iteration is preceded and followed by sessions with the assembled providers to review the experiences, and learn what might be improved. As the months have passed, the program has served some number of thousands of people experiencing homelessness in the middle of downtown Los Angeles. We have placed families into housing. We have given people crucial identification. We have given people a little bit of hope.

We’re just operating in one branch today, with an eye on spreading this sort of program to every branch of every library in service of those experiencing homelessness nationwide. The model requires buy-in from the library, of course, as it requires space and time to be taken up, as well as resources from library staff. In Los Angeles, on a once per month cadence, there has been no shortage of volunteers willing to assist both within the staff, and without.

The first time I visited THE SOURCE to observe, it ran much like your typical “municipal service” office might. You’ve experienced this. Think about your visits to the DMV. Typically, that’s not an experience someone would reflect positively on, so avoiding a similar perception was important.

Has this happened to you?

Has this happened to you?

The following feedback could apply to many different interactions between municipalities and those they serve, particularly in multi-step processes.

If you’ve designed any sort of public experience, or experienced one yourself, you’ve probably “enjoyed” one (or more) of the following issues:

  • Simplify and leverage paperwork: Shrink the amount of time people spend filling out paperwork, as aggressively as possible. This will mean higher throughput for the service providers, meaning more people are served, without sacrificing quality. In fact, by leveraging the information provided along the way, redundant error checks along the way become a part of the process itself.
  • No numbers! Using a number in place of someone’s name implies that they are a “commodity.” Again, it’s helpful to reflect on experiences at the DMV: would you prefer to wait to hear someone call a random number that you don’t typically associate with, or your name?Numbering people is a dehumanizing step for a process to take, and should be avoided, particularly when interacting with populations that have already been significantly dehumanized.
  • Unclear direction: Insufficient signage, matched with an array of station options, led to a lot of confusion on the part of both the service providers, and the participants. It meant a little more milling about, and a lot of lost time for the service provider as the “next” person was located.
  • The right station at the right time: Work to systematize the way people are directed to stations — is there a better way than we’re doing it today? As with “unclear direction,” a more personal interaction may be the best way to do this.
  • Share stories: The people who participate in this program are almost all willing to sit and have a conversation. They want someone to listen to them. Someone to treat them like a person for a few minutes, rather than just a piece of garbage to be avoided. These stories help volunteers and service providers connect with those they serve, and in cases where they can be recorded, can be used as a vital piece of content to share the impact of the work being done.
  • Bags of food: Unfortunately, enrolling in food programming via DPSS takes three (or 30!) days, depending on your situation. Because of this, people will walk away empty-handed, and without the ability to use DPSS. To solve this problem, bring in service providers or non-profits who can stuff and give-away both hygienic packs, and food packs, on a per-person-served basis.

By this past week, when the most recent iteration of THE SOURCE had occurred, experiments on each of the above pieces of feedback had been performed, with much of it rolled into the program itself. People were called by name. The paperwork process sped up a bit. Signage improved.

There is still work to be done, of course. As with any good service, designing never really ends. There’s almost always something that can be improved, for one or more of the stakeholders the design serves. With that philosophy in mind, I decided to share this work at an event at Impact Hub LA on the evening of September 28th.

Sorry about the audio quality!

An overwhelmingly positive response both from the organizers and the other participants helped to validate the work we’ve done so far. It’s time to start experimenting again, and in particular, it’s time to start thinking about how we can capture and break down the model in a way that makes it adaptable and palatable for other organizations.

The intent is to open-source the “best practices” discovered through this effort, to share it with the population at large both through social media and through municipal outreach, and to continue to iterate as we welcome new nodes into the experimental network of THE SOURCE.

If you’re interested in volunteering at THE SOURCE or collaborating on the future of the program, please contact me.

Let’s collaborate to end homelessness!

Let’s collaborate to end homelessness!

We can deliver services to thousands of people experiencing homelessness through one library branch. How many could we reach if this program existed at every branch…?