Find the Root Causes

 In Reflections
Reflections from the Front Lines

Find the Root Causes

Systems Thinking leads to solutions.

It’s been seven days since my last post. 17 3/4 months of loss of smell; new scents are all less than pleasant, for example, burnt popcorn.

The last week at the Human Services Campus was less traumatic than the previous one. Still we are fraught with tensions over how to connect 941 unsheltered in our neighborhood with services. And feeling helpless while a day of wind gusts (reported over 60 mph at the airport) stretched, tore, and flung possessions across streets. People hunkered down in their temporary shelters built from random pieces of materials.

After several conversations, meetings, and listening to presentations this week, today I turned off my computer and looked at my whiteboard. There is no clear picture, diagram, or formation of words that paints a clear strategy or goals for 2023. There are random notes. The P, I, H for Prevention, Interventions, and Housing.

Refrains from those meetings and conversations this week echoed in my brain. All the advocacy for more housing. Yes, we need more housing. All the anxiety over the impending end of American Rescue Plan and CARES Act funding that have provided critical resources for the intervention services, like shelter, that assist people experiencing homelessness. Yes, we need those services.

With my bag and purse in hand, I said out loud to only myself, “we have to prevent the shit out of homelessness.”

Not my most eloquent thought and expression.

And, we can spend all of our time and energy fighting to create more shelter and more housing, however we are in battles that we are constantly losing if we do not fight even more loudly for prevention. We have to help people stay housed. Our community experiences a constant inflow of new households into homelessness.

The average “new” households falling into homelessness in Maricopa County over the last 12 months is 991 per month.

The average “positive” exits in the same timeframe is 481 per month.

There are also unknown and “negative” exits and some number of those people reappear in the homeless services systems and are included in an additional “inflow” number.

So what am I trying to say?

The pace of people losing their housing is faster than the pace of people leaving homelessness and moving into permanent housing.

We find ourselves having a forever conversation about adding emergency shelter beds and new housing opportunities. “Prevention” seems cast aside and over simplified as “rent and utility assistance.”

What if we really looked at the reasons why people lose their housing, and we addressed those root causes.

What if we asked people who are retired and living month-to-month on their Social Security Income how stable they feel in their housing and what they need to have health and housing? What if they didn’t have to make choices between paying for food, prescriptions, and rent?

What if we asked people who live with disabilities who count on their Social Security Disability Income how stable they feel in their housing? And what do they need to have health and housing?

What if all of the people working jobs that pay less than a livable wage were asked what their income gap is? What do they need to afford rents, utilities, food, transportation? What do they need to have health and housing?

What if people who are housed and employed living with chronic health conditions and/or mental health challenges were asked what they need to have sustainable health and housing?

We end up in discussions of treating the unhoused when there are more housed people who need and “treatment” of one kind or another. Can they all access it? What happens when they can’t? Do they burn through their safety net and lose their housing?

What if we examined the systems, like jails/prisons, hospital emergency rooms, and foster care, that discharge people without housing? What if we asked those affected what they need for health and housing before they are homeless?

We are playing a game of charity chess. We could flip the game board over, send the pieces flying like torn tents in a Phoenix windstorm, and invest our time and energy in systems thinking. Systems thinking leads to solutions. It’s re-engineering the pieces and parts, measuring the dynamics, ripping things apart to find root causes, and building solutions.

We need to prevent the shit out of homelessness.

About the Human Services Campus

Founded in 2005, the Human Services Campus is a collaborative force of partner organizations united on one campus to end homelessness. Located just west of downtown Phoenix, 16 independent agencies on the Campus see nearly 1,000 individuals every day, offering a holistic range of client services including: reunification with family and friends; mental, physical and dental health; shelter; employment; meals; legal services and housing. Having all of these resources in one location with intra-agency communications makes it more feasible to provide a customized engagement for each client to help end their homelessness. For more information, visit

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