From Knee-Jerk Reaction to Transformation Change: addressing the homelessness challenge in Abbotsford

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We are on a journey of remarkable change and transformation in the community of Abbotsford, a municipality of 150,000 people 70 km east of Vancouver, Canada. Our story starts sadly with a reactive response to homelessness in 2013 but then shifts to a positive response of unity, hope and inspiration. Impacts nonetheless are still being felt by residents, businesses, service providers, and vulnerable individuals. Realistically, this story is about incremental change within a broader long-term transformative agenda: taking the time to listen to the voices and frustrations of those who are realizing the day-to-day impacts, and then creating space for multiple perspectives to generate co-created solutions. This is the real work, the messy work, and the shared realization of cultural transformation through applied systems work on a day-today basis.

The community is now on a far more collaborative pathway to a better future for people experiencing homelessness. The community has rallied around shared strategies that reflect the systemic nature of these sorts of community challenges. Organizations across all sectors are working together on actions they share and toward common outcomes they identified. The coordinated efforts of many people and organizations toward these shared outcomes are starting to make a difference in responding to those experiencing homelessness and those at risk of becoming homeless. Teams are devising new approaches, documenting their experiences, and learning together. New relationships are being forged and trust is building despite moments of tension, ambiguity, and uncertainty. While there are early signs of improvement, there is also a growing appreciation for the need to take the long view, to remain committed, stay the course, while always learning and adjusting. This is the evolving nature of our collective impact work.

The journey of getting the community to a better place is the result of many events and factors coming together over time. One of these was when the three of us – Dena Kae Beno, Abbotsford’s new Housing and Homelessness Coordinator met Keith Jones and Bob Yates at the Nonprofit Centers Network’s 2015 Building Opportunities Connecting Possibilities conference in Vancouver, BC. Dena attended a workshop presented by Bob and Keith titled – Rethinking Strategy New tools for alignment, collaboration, measurement, and collective impact. This message with examples offered Dena inspiration and a potential process and framework for the challenges she was taking on in Abbotsford. The workshop acknowledged the inherent complexity and shear size of the challenges non-profit leaders and changemakers face. Keith and Bob described a way forward that helped demystify the confusing world of strategy and collective impact. The large Strategy Roadmaps of actions, outcomes, goals and impacts displayed on the walls embraced the complexity of their challenges and showed clearly how everything is connected to a shared Strategic Goal. Dena could see how this co-creative process and these comprehensive and coherent maps would help Abbotsford turn its homelessness situation around.

After the NCN conference, Dena invited Keith and Bob to help her address Abbotsford’s homelessness challenge. She also reached out to both nurture and develop new relationships throughout the community. The agenda for change and transformation began. In parallel Keith and Bob, conducted stakeholder interviews, reviewed key documents, and facilitated a series of workshops with a diverse Research Design Team. A co-created, Strategic Roadmap emerged. With added input and buy-in at an inaugural Community Forum, hosted by the Research Design Team, the community was the proud owner of its own actionable strategy, with priorities, for the “Prevention of and Response to Homelessness in Abbotsford.” Dena, as the housing and homelessness coordinator, together with many other community leaders, immediately set about putting the Strategy Roadmap to work!

First-up was research, design, and piloting of a “Coordinated Intake and Referral System”, a critical flagship implementation priority. Since 2015 the community has increased its year-round shelter beds from 20 to 66, its extreme weather beds from 26 to 126, its supportive housing units 53 to 73 with another 84 that are going to open by the fall of 2018, and the establishment of an Integrated Case Management Team.

With the map being utilized as the community-generated architecture for the systems work, the community of stakeholders is always ready to respond to funding opportunities as they arise, being able to easily relate funding investments to action-outcome pathways in the Strategy Roadmap and to identify key performance indicators and shared client-centred outcomes that are measurable and support continuous improvement to the system.

Co-Creating a Collaborative Roadmap for the Prevention of and Response to Homelessness in Abbotsford from rkeithjones on Vimeo.

We have successfully developed an innovative set of principles, processes, practices, and tools to bring transformative change to urgent and complex challenges such as homelessness and affordable housing. We have committed to shared accountability to align activities and follow through with the intention of addressing daily impacts, while continuing to focus on long-term strategic outcomes that will improve the lives of all Abbotsford residents.  These are challenges that no one organization can possibly address on their own. Our approach puts collaboration and co-creation at the centre and has led to the develop of a new form of soft “community infrastructure.” Applying this infrastructure has put the community on a positive and inspiring journey of change and transformation. We are thankful to the many leaders, changemakers and dedicated workers across the community of Abbotsford that have made this shift possible.

If you are a leader and changemaker facing similar complexities, please join us to hear more about our experience at Sharing Innovation 2018 in Denver on October 3rd. If there is sufficient interest, we may also facilitate a deeper dive workshop either before or following this event.


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