Managing Polarity

 In Reflections
Reflections from the Front Lines

Managing Polarity

People are counting on us.

In a mild rush, mid-afternoon today, I stepped off the sidewalk on to Madison street with a stack of printed info sheets in my arms. To my left I heard a voice say, “Hey, are you making a list?” I paused and turned to see a man waiting for my answer. I told him that I wasn’t making a list. Pointing to the paper, I said I needed to drop these off somewhere. “What’s up?” I asked him and walked towards him. He began to tell me he didn’t want to stay outside any more. He waved his arm across an expanse of tents as he described health issues and a physician’s concern for his ability to take care of himself sleeping on hard surfaces, like concrete. I asked for his name and sent a text message to an employee. He also gave me his phone number and told me which tent was his, so that we can find him and figure out a plan to help him with shelter or housing that has a comfortable bed. We fist bumped, and he wished me a good weekend. I sent follow up text messages from my car to the employee, providing more context for my cryptic text to “find so and so, in such and such tent about housing.”

Reflections from the front lines serving people experiencing homelessness, during a hot Phoenix Autumn, watching the Diamondbacks in the playoffs, and channeling Mike McQuaid.

It’s late October and we have 100 degree days. Next week the forecast shows lower temps in the 80s. That will be a welcome reprieve. The Human Services Campus (HSC) team counted 518 unsheltered individuals in the shrinking public space in the neighborhood. HSC is partnered with City and many other organizations to meet a Court deadline of November 4th to have no unsheltered people in the blocks around us. With 518 people unsheltered, it’s an all hand’s on deck effort. Although challenging, this short term objective is necessary to avoid a million dollar fine on the City. A million dollars that could be better used on longer term solutions.

While we partner in this way, it pains me that the Courts and judges are now making decisions related to homelessness that are far from their area of expertise. As the universe often provides, this morning I was in a peer group of social impact CEOs and our facilitator brought up the idea of “Managing Polarity.” The rest of the day between phone calls and meetings, emails and decision making, I thought about the vast number of polarities in this work. Many of us look at homelessness as a problem that needs to be fixed. And the truth is, not everything can be fixed. Employees and leaders that are problem solvers are certainly valued. Yet we may spend never-ending time debating and designing solutions, knowing that politically we will most likely not find agreement on any one solution. I need to study more about this to learn the techniques of managing polarity. And in the spurts of information gathering today, I find myself relating to the language of “consistent inconsistency,” “both/and leadership,” “moving from scarcity to abundance,” and “moving from stability and certainty to dynamism and change.” (source:

I think of Mike McQuaid often. And when I’m coming across new ideas and working in new ways, I wish he was here to talk about them. I wish he could be part of this action, and while he was definitely a problem solver he also appreciated new ideas and challenging the status quo.

One of my more frequent refrains with staff is “people are counting on us.” We have to pull ourselves through the uncertainty, the chaos, the ups and downs, because thousands of people are expecting us to help them. They don’t have time to wait for us to implement perfect solutions that 100% of people agree upon. Their lives are dependent upon us as community to identify adaptable approaches that make progress.

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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