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Taking A Complex Systems Approach To Homelessness

Taking A Complex Systems Approach To Homelessness

Homelessness is a complex socioeconomic problem that affects millions of individuals all over the world, including even rich developed countries in Europe and North America.

Even after years of concerted efforts, and billions of dollars earmarked for ending this pervasive problem, the number of individuals experiencing homelessness at any given point in time only continues to increase by leaps and bounds each passing year.

The fight against homelessness in the West has largely been a failure, mostly because we’ve failed to address this as a multifaceted issue that involves economic, social, and even psychological factors, requiring a more holistic approach that deals with the root causes, rather than the symptoms.

A complex systems approach essentially recognizes that homelessness is a result of various interrelated systemic failures, and seeks to understand and address each of them to plan the best course of action. In this article, we take a look at what such an approach would look like when successfully implemented.

Understanding Homelessness As A Complex Problem

Most people still believe that homelessness is simply a matter of individuals lacking shelter, something that can be solved by just building more houses. 

In reality, this is a problem that is a result of a wide range of factors, including, but not limited to poverty, mental health, substance abuse, and systemic racism, among other things. These issues come to light only when looking at it under the lens of complex systems. 

A complex systems approach recognizes the interdependent parts of this problem, and the various interconnections, and feedback loops that have since made it such a pervasive issue.

For example, imagine a person who has just lost his or her job, and is thus unable to make rent payments, leading them to be evicted. Now, because they are homeless, they find it hard to hunt for jobs, fill out rent applications, or do anything else that can help get them back on their feet.

Similarly, for those struggling with substance abuse, or mental health issues, it would be impossible to hold down a job, so they repeatedly find themselves out on the streets. So, the issue isn’t about jobs or housing, and it cannot be made to go away by merely throwing billions of dollars at it.

Benefits of Complex Systems Approach To Homelessness

As discussed, the complex systems approach to tackling the problem of homelessness comes with a host of different benefits. 

First of all, it provides for a more comprehensive understanding of the issue, all the various factors and nuances that aren’t evident. Policy makers have since wasted years and billions of dollars addressing mere symptoms, completely missing the big picture.

Secondly, performing a complex systems analysis helps identify the right leverage points for interventions. For example, it is now well established that early interventions when an individual first experiences homelessness yields much better outcomes, and is often a lot cheaper than at a later stage.

Things only get more and more worse for people, the longer they spend homeless, with mental illness, crime, and diseases, all piling on over time, making an early intervention absolutely critical.

Finally, such systems and analyses can help avoid the unintended consequences of traditional interventions. Soup kitchens and temporary shelters, while great, often lead to a cycle of dependency that can never be fully overcome unless the root causes are similarly addressed.

After two decades of failure, a systems approach has finally caught on, and now a tech-enabled system for managing homelessness data is pretty much a standard at all local administrations. The rise of programs such as Built For Zero and Housing First can, for the most part, be attributed to the same.

Final Words

For long, homelessness has been a stubborn, unyielding scourge on modern society, with seemingly no end in sight. Fortunately, we might just be turning the corner in this fight, with better outcomes over the course of this decade.

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