Homeless services are plagued by fragmentation and resource scarcity, making the field a poster child for cross-sector collaboration—a policy trend where nonprofits and government come together to address problems that cannot be solved by one sector alone. The HUD Continuum of Care (CoC) system is a mandate for this—through coordination, regions should be better able to integrate services in order to improve homeless outcomes. Such collaboration is not easy, however: it requires resources and time, can distract from direct service, and involves loss of organizational flexibility and autonomy. Knowing how CoCs have fared in terms of these or other pitfalls is important to determine the value of this intervention, as well as how the CoC process can be improved to better meet the challenge of solving homelessness in the U.S. This paper addresses two questions 1) what collaborative challenges do CoCs experience?, and 2) what role do network managers play in addressing those challenges?
This paper uses data from a two-wave mixed methods study of CoCs across the U.S. First, a 2014 national survey of the population was carried out; of the census of 418 CoCs, 312 responded to the survey for a response rate of 75%. Eighteen CoCs were then purposively sampled for a follow-up multiple comparative case study. For each CoC, researchers carried out qualitative interviews with network leadership as well as participants for a total of 145 interviews. Coding took place concurrently with data collection, and the research team met bi-weekly during this period to discuss emerging findings and how codes were being used as well as to conduct coding reliability checks.
Findings indicate that the largest barrier CoCs experience overall is lack of capacity, both in regard to funding and human capital. However, two other barriers—both related to capacity—also emerge. The first is challenges regarding the CoCs’ ability to negotiate the competing narratives of homelessness held by participating organizations. This affects CoC’s ability to promote innovation as it is particularly an issue in regard to belief in the promise of permanent supportive housing. The second concerns equity in service provision in that many organizations participating in CoCs express concern that some vulnerable populations or less-populated regions may be being shortchanged in the effort to target populations with attached federal funding incentives or those more easily reached.
Conclusions and Implications
Together, these barriers can affect the trajectories of people who are homeless by making the system less efficient and creating service gaps. However, data also show that leaders who engage as facilitators, invest in building trust and commitment, and promoting a sense of shared responsibility are able to help their networks overcome these barriers and collaborate more effectively. Overall, this paper contributes to the literature on the effectiveness of the homeless service system by providing evidence regarding common challenges faced by CoCs, the negative repercussions those challenges may have on delivering quality services to people experiencing homelessness, and what network managers can do to address them.