Abstract: (WITHDRAWN) Cross-Sector Collaboration to Improve Homeless Services: Barriers Affecting Capacity, Innovation, and Equity (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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(WITHDRAWN) Cross-Sector Collaboration to Improve Homeless Services: Barriers Affecting Capacity, Innovation, and Equity

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Jennifer Mosley, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background and Purpose:

Homeless services are plagued by fragmentation and resource scarcity. Such a “wicked problem” is a poster child for the collaboration imperative—a policy trend where nonprofit providers and government agencies come together to address problems that cannot be solved by one sector alone. As a response, HUD initiated the Continuum of Care (CoC) system—a cross-sector collaboration mandate—in order to improve outcomes for people who are homeless. Through coordination, regions are thought to be better able to integrate services and improve information flow. Collaboration is not easy, however. It takes resources that many CoCs don’t have and has pitfalls such as conflict between organizational cultures, loss of autonomy, and mission drift. Knowing more about the barriers CoCs face is important in order to determine how the CoC process can better meet the challenge of solving homelessness. Accordingly, this paper asks the question: What challenges do CoCs experience in their quest to collaborate in support of homeless services?


Data is drawn from a multiple comparative case study of eighteen CoCs chosen based on responses to a national survey. The coordinator for each network was contacted to solicit participation; qualitative interviews were held with network leadership as well as participants until saturation was reached. The total number of interviews conducted was 145. Questions focused on leadership, decision-making, and patterns of communication. Interviews took approximately an hour, were audio recorded, transcribed, and coded for analysis. We also did content analysis of meeting minutes, assessed documentation submitted to HUD, and carried out participant observation at meetings when possible.


The largest barrier CoCs experience overall is lack of capacity. Their limited personnel and financial resources were only barely sufficient for carrying out basic tasks, making it difficult to engage in additional activities and services. However, two other barriers—not unrelated to capacity—also emerge. One affects CoC’s ability to promote innovation as serious barriers arise in regards to CoCs’ ability to negotiate competing narratives of homelessness. This is particularly an issue in regards to belief in the promise of permanent supportive housing. The second concerns equity in service provision in that many CoC participants express concern that some vulnerable populations (e.g. victims of domestic violence, youth) may be being shortchanged in the effort to target populations with attached federal funding incentives (e.g. veterans, chronically homeless).

Conclusions and Implications:

Findings from this study indicate that while the CoC program has potential to bring communities together and create a more holistic and coordinated response to homelessness, currently CoCs are struggling with capacity in ways that adversely affect their functioning. We find that the CoC structure effectively mediates the degree to which important innovations actually are implemented, sustained, and deployed in constructive ways across regions. Knowing more about how systems work—and the organizations that comprise them—is an important, yet understudied piece of the puzzle when it comes to solving homelessness. In order improve effectiveness we must take into account the priorities, capacity, and changing nature of the larger service system.