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The importance of urgency in ending homelessness

January 16, 2020 - 9:25 am / News

Homelessness is a crisis that has lost its sense of urgency. Those experiencing homelessness are locked in a daily life and death struggle. Our response to this crisis too often gets bogged down in process, planning, research and ‘analysis paralysis’ and we don’t react with the speed and urgency our homeless neighbours need. In this blog we explore how to build speed and urgency into the work of ending homelessness


By Tim Richter,
Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness President & CEO,




Homelessness is a daily life and death struggle for people experiencing it. In our often-comfortable world of cubicles, meetings, plans, budgets and processes it’s easy for us to lose sight of that.

We have a disaster unfolding in our streets. Upwards of 235,000 different Canadians experience homelessness every year; 35,000 every night. And homelessness kills. This week, Toronto added the 1,000th name to their homelessness memorial. Homelessness reduces the life expectancy for those who experience it by at least 25 years.

Homelessness in Canada is a disaster no matter how you measure it. It’s critical we respond to this crisis with the urgency it deserves and a housing focus.

But there are also some more practical reasons to inject a sense of urgency into our work. Homelessness is a dynamic and rapidly changing problem. We must be ready to pivot our responses to the changing nature of the problem. Urgency can help us break the inertia that too often infects big systems or organizations over time, allowing our responses to be nimbler. Urgency forces us to strip out unnecessary busy work, set priorities and drive for rapid results. Urgency also demands we adopt a ‘do what it takes’ attitude and innovate rapidly to adapt to a constantly changing problem.

A sense of urgency is essential in ending homelessness and a vital mindset for leaders who will set the tone and tempo for their organizations. Here are some tips for leaders on how to bring more urgency to our work:

  • Have a long-term vision with a clearly defined and measurable objective like functional zero. Measurable goals (with clearly defined milestones along the way) help set priorities, keep focused define strategy and helps us break the problem down into bite sized chunks.
  • Break down the long-term goals into six-month, monthly (e.g. inflow, outflow, actively homeless) and weekly targets (e.g. housing placement #, diversion #). By focusing on short-term targets (set within the context of the larger goal) you break the problem down into short bounds, which helps avoid getting overwhelmed into inaction. Breaking the problem down into short bounds is also an opportunity to create momentum and a tempo of change by reaching those short-term goals quickly.
  • Use real-time, person-specific data (By-Name List). Real-time data gives us the ability to see homelessness as it unfolds, evaluate if our interventions are working and respond rapidly. Look at your BNL data at least monthly and when you look at it, ask: what’s happening, why, and what do we need to do to make progress this month toward our goal?
  • Use real-time data and rapid cycle testing to drive continuous improvement. With real-time data through a By-Name List you can see changes in homelessness and target areas for improvement. Seek out ‘bright spots’ – successes in your community or elsewhere that have been successful solving a similar challenge to the one you are trying to solve. Implement regular ‘Plan, Do, Study, Act’ (PDSA) improvement cycles to test small changes quickly to improve performance. In a recent example, Chatham Kent used PDSA’s to improve their data and ultimately reduce chronic homelessness.
  • Build flexibility into your budgeting. Knowing that you will need to pivot, and you will want to test some changes, set aside some money in your budget that you can allocate quickly to fund an improvement project or respond to a change in your data.
  • Scrap annual planning and adopt six-month planning cycles. Let’s be honest, it’s nearly impossible to predict what will happen next month, never mind what will happen in a year. On top of that, homelessness is dynamic and rapidly changing so we need to embed processes that allow us to move quickly. Focus on annual and quarterly outcomes with a six-month planning cycle. You can still have annual budgets but build in some flexibility to allow room to maneuver.
  • Communicate urgency to your organization and community. Keep urgency in your messaging and use visual cues like count down clocks, monthly/weekly target boards (prominently placed white boards where targets are written down), data dashboards and put goal/target/outcome reminders in every team meeting agenda to keep team outcomes focused and to create a sense of urgency. Keep your community and stakeholders engaged in your goal and the pathway to the goal; celebrate success, surface challenges and create a culture of innovation and quick response and a willingness to fail forward.
  • If you are a community leader or funder, you can also embed outcomes in your funding contracts that drive urgency in performance through outcome expectations, performance improvement practices and training.
    • Remember: In leadership, what you do is as or more important than what you say, so set the example in your own work.
  • Use Registry Weeks to mobilize the community, populate your By-Name List, build awareness and create a more public sense of urgency.
  • Try a 100 Day Challenge. The 100-Day Challenge was pioneered by Rapid Results Institute (RRI) and has been used in communities and governments around the world to tackle complex social issues. The compressed timeframe of 100 days, high visibility, support from Built for Zero Canada improvement advisors, CAEH trainers and peers can all work together to help you achieve rapid progress.  
  • Finally – and most importantly – ground yourself in the reality faced by people experiencing homelessness by staying in close contact with them. Embed lived experience in your organization (on the Board and in staff roles), engage people experiencing homelessness in your improvement projects (human-centred design), consult them regularly and especially if you are not a frontline service provider, create formal and informal opportunities for your team to get to know and stay in contact with those we serve. We must see this disaster through the eyes of those experiencing it, seek their wisdom in creating solutions, and reflect the urgency they live with in our response. 

People experiencing homelessness deserve an urgent response – this is a life and death struggle. Creating a sense of urgency in our work to house and support our homeless neighbours will accelerate our efforts by helping us become more focused, effective and efficient.

Homelessness is a solvable problem and we should do so with urgency.

Register today for our upcoming webinars

Mark your calendars! We have plenty of upcoming webinars to help you end homelessness in your community. Check out our Monthly Webinars page to learn more and register today.

We have webinars scheduled until early April, but we’re always updating our webinar page. There is still time to register for our January webinars about By-Name Lists and Coordinated Access:

  • January 17, 2:30 p.m. EST: Community of Practice – Starting Small & Scaling Up. REGISTER
  • January 20, 1 p.m. EST: Prioritization. REGISTER

See our full list of webinars by clicking here,