Dr. Jim O'Connell is founding physician and president of the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program. He has long been a practitioner serving homeless people in Boston and a local and national advocate, writer and speaker advancing our thinking in how the nation addresses homelessness. I recently came across this quote by Jim:
"The painfully obvious lesson for me has been the futility of solving this complex social problem solely with new approaches to medical or mental health care…I dream of writing a prescription for an apartment, a studio, an SRO, or any safe housing program, good for one month, with 12 refills.”
The quote because it rings true. It immediately implies the interconnection of housing, mental health care and physical health care--in short, a systems view--in understanding homelessness. If we think more about interconnections we also start seeing links to employment, to education, to food access.
It's all connected. Our challenge is to see the interconnections, understand their interplay, and determine where best to intervene.
One way to do that is by applying "systems thinking." That means mapping the interconnections (and interdependencies) to understand the structures of the "eco-system" that produces homelessness. It means focusing not on blame of certain people/organizations but understating and addressing those structural forces. ("Laziness," "choosing to be homeless," etc. doesn't explain epidemic homelessness.) Systems thinking means looking for unintended consequences of our actions and continually testing ideas and assumptions.
And as much as anything, systems thinking (and the systems acting it leads to) requires collaboration, that is, practicing radical inclusion in the process, collecting different perspectives, listening (!), and reaching out across sectors, departments, and other boundaries. As systems thinker, Paul Plotczyk, said to me, "Systems thinking is a team sport." He's right.
The Dr. Jim O'Connell quote is taken from a paper he wrote titled, "The Need for Homelessness Prevention: A Doctor’s View of Life and Death on the Streets," (2007)
Most of my thoughts on systems comes from (stolen from?) a variety of systems thinkers I've met or read, chief among them is David Peter Stroh whom I regularly work with and learn from. Poor systems thinking or articulation though is all me.