Addressing homelessness in rural areas has multiple complexities including scarcity of funding, support services, and shelter options, as well as facing a common misconception that rural homelessness does not exist.
To better understand how homelessness was affecting their community, partners working in Mercer County, IL came together to participate in their own “100-day challenge,” an organized collaborative event that supports communities in kick-starting complex change efforts. As part of their 100 days, they mapped out the broader system that contributes to getting people rapidly housed and stress-tested their support infrastructure to see what was working and what was not.
In this discussion, we talk with several leaders from this work to learn about how folks came together for these 100 days. Joining us to share their experiences is Cathy Jordan (Project Now) and Sean Whitten, Sara Robens, and Peter Muse (RE!NSTITUTE). They share how they worked through challenging times to uncover how homelessness was hidden in their community, and what they did to support people moving into housing.
Please find a transcript of this talk further down this page.
Resources and Footnotes
- Project Now
- Systems Change and the 100-Day Challenge
- Palm Beach County 100-Day Dual Sector Challenge
More on Collective Impact
Welcome to the Collective Impact Forum podcast, here to share resources to support social change makers working on cross-sector collaboration.
The Collective Impact Forum is a nonprofit field-building initiative that is co-hosted in partnership by the nonprofit consulting firm FSG and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions.
In this episode, we’re exploring some of the complexities that come up when addressing homelessness in rural areas. These complexities can include scarcity of funding, support services, and shelter options, as well as facing a common misconception that rural homelessness does not exist.
To better understand how homelessness was affecting their own rural community, partners working in Mercer County, IL came together to participate in a “100-day challenge,” an organized collaborative event that supports communities in kick-starting complex change efforts. As part of their 100 days, they mapped out the broader system that contributes to getting people rapidly housed and stress-tested their support infrastructure to see what was working and what was not.
In this episode, we talk with several leaders from this work to learn about how folks came together for these 100 days. Joining us to share their experiences is Cathy Jordan from Project Now, and Sean Whitten, Sara Robens, and Peter Muse from RE!NSTITUTE. They share how they worked through challenging times to uncover how homelessness was hidden in Mercer County, and what they did to support people moving into housing.
Moderating this discussion is Collective Impact Forum’s director of programs and partnerships Courtney W. Robertson. Let’s tune in.
Courtney W. Robertson: Welcome to the Collective Impact Forum podcast. My name is Courtney W. Robertson, director of programs and partnerships with the Collective Impact Forum, and I am your host.
We all can agree and know that change does not happen overnight, and often does not happen at scale right away. With proper planning and intentionality collaboratives and communities can make significant progress against outcomes and changes within systems. This episode features a conversation on a structured approach to implementing timebound incremental change and collaborative efforts using a 100-Day Challenge model developed by RE!NSTITUTE, based in Stamford, Connecticut.
Joining us from the RE!NSTITUTE team are our friends Sarah Robens, monitoring, evaluation, and learning global director; Sean Whitten, chief executive officer; and Peter Muse, catalyst. Also joining us is Cathy Jordan with Project NOW. She’s a homeless coordinator with that organization based in Rock Island, Illinois. Thank you all so much for joining us today.
Although I’ve introduced you, I would love to hear from each of you. Just introduce yourself and your role and connection to this work. We can start with you, Sean.
Sean Whitten: Thanks, Courtney. As Courtney mentioned, my name is Sean Whitten. I am the CEO of RE!NSTITUTE. My journey here and my connection actually began in 2009 when I myself was experiencing homelessness and was able to connect to an organization that provided me services and support, and then asked me to work for them, which was amazing. My position there was as a housing case manager, and I had the chance to participate in a 100-Day Challenge that RE!NSTITUTE was providing and fell in love with the methodology. We saw so much improvement in our outcomes around housing veterans, and came together as a real community around that work, which was real exciting.
And then, I had the opportunity to become a catalyst here. So since 2015, when I began my journey as a catalyst, I have had several positions here in the U.S. And then two years ago our founder retired, and I was selected to be in this role that I’m in now, which provides me an opportunity to kind of take a 60,000-foot view and take a look at all of the programs we’re doing around the world and just help support our mission and vision to move the organization forward.
Sarah Robens: I’m Sarah Robens, and as Courtney said I’m the global director for monitoring, evaluation, and learning. I’ve been with the organization about two and a half years. My role here which I really very much enjoy is to just take a look at the work that we’re doing and trying to understand what is happening, but very importantly, how it’s working, and continuously think about how we can build on what we do, how we can continue to develop our approaches and our methodologies to transform systems, which is something I greatly enjoy. I’ve had over 25 years of working in evaluation and improvement and innovation kind of projects, and so I’ve seen a lot over the years of what works and what doesn’t and how things pull together. I’ve worked in international development and health and social care. I’m based in the UK and it’s just great for me to be able to do this kind of work and to see, to really understand where people fit within systems, which is something I’m passionate about, and to be able to put learning into practice.
Peter Muse: Hi. My name is Peter Muse. I’m a catalyst based out of Sacramento, California. As a catalyst I have the privilege of working directly with these incredible communities such as Mercer County, who we’re going to hear about today. Prior to joining RE!NSTITUTE, I worked in direct service in the Sacramento County Homeless Response System in different roles such as director of homeless outreach as well as continuum of care project manager.
Cathy Jordan: Thank you, Courtney. Hi, everyone. I’m Cathy Jordan. I am the homeless coordinator with Project NOW. We are a continuing agency that’s evolving. We are a community action agency, but now we have taken a sector of homeless services. I am privileged to have a team of dedicated individuals where we want to provide housing for people that are experiencing homelessness. I have been in the field for 18 years doing a plethora of different things such as Sean has as well. My main focus has always been veterans that experience homelessness, but this was a unique opportunity for Project NOW to come together with our friends in Mercer County and make a real impact on how we address homelessness in a rural county. Glad to be here.
Courtney W. Robertson: Awesome. Thank you all so much for those wonderful introductions. Not a busy team at all, but it sounds like you all have sort of assembled the A Team, if you will, is what it sounds like to me, from different parts of the country.
I’d love to, before we dive more into sort of the intricacies of the work, hear a bit more about RE!NSTITUTE, and I do want to note for our audience that’s listening that the I in RE!NSTITUTE is actually an exclamation point. So it’s RE-INSTITUTE, is how I would say it.
Sean, would love to hear just more about the organization and if you could expound upon that 100-Day Challenge model and what that looks like.
Sean Whitten: So, RE!NSTITUTE was founded in 2007. We were actually Rapid Results Institute at the time, currently, as you mentioned, RE!NSTITUTE. The goal of the organization is to really help communities around the world think differently about impact. We work with them through our methodology, which is the 100-Day Challenge, to really kind of think about what would it be like if we could increase our impact and our results. And through the 100-Day Challenge, that timebound framework allows them to uncover challenges in their systems, to create innovations to solve problems, to really think about what the system could look like and what it should look like to best serve the folks that are going through that system.
There are people on the front lines so we’re talking about folks who are giving direct service to individuals and what we’ll talk about today in homelessness and how those individuals also have a voice in thinking about what the system should look like.
I think we often find that decisions are made by folks in leadership positions to help move things forward, and the experience and the knowledge and the skills of those folks right on the front line bring a whole other energy and level of experience to decision making when it relates to the system.
We’ve done work in Sub-Saharan Africa on HIV and AIDS prevention. We do work in Latin America on justice systems. We’ve done work on gender violence in both Latin America and South Africa, and do work in health care in the UK with the National Health Service, thinking about how to decrease wait times and support elder adults who might have experienced a fall and to kind of get them the better treatment that they need rather than being in a system that’s inefficient at times and not helping them get the help they need.
Courtney W. Robertson: Thanks, Sean. Just a quick follow-up question for you all. How are you typically connected with community? Is it that you come in and say, “Hey, we have this model. We would love to support you in engaging in it,” or are people seeking out your services, or is there a mix of both?
Sean Whitten: It’s a mix of both. I think we’ve been working on housing and homelessness since about 2013, and had the opportunity to be a part of a couple of large national initiatives. One of those was the 100,000 Homes campaign. Another one was the 25 Cities campaign. And so through that work we worked with over 108 communities in the U.S. People are familiar with us and kind of get to know what our work is. We’ve partnered with other organizations and have worked on projects that were funded by HUD here in the U.S., and are versed in homelessness. So it’s a mix of both. We worked with Palm Beach County, a wonderful community. I think this is our fourth engagement with them, so just really being able to kind of re-engage folks that we worked with in the past is another way that we do our work.
Courtney W. Robertson: Awesome. Thank you for that. I will say that RE!NSTITUTE is a lot sexier than Rapid Results. That’s giving like tax preparation, you know.
Sean Whitten: We’ll take it, Courtney.
Courtney W. Robertson: Absolutely. I do want to, before we talk more with you, Cathy, about how your community engaged in this challenge. From my understanding, the system sort of like change and transformation components of the work weren’t an initial part of the model. Is that correct? So I would love to hear sort of how it’s integrated now into the support that you all are providing to organizations and communities.
Sarah Robens: Just thinking a bit about where that system transformation element came from, 100-Day Challenge methodology, it is a systems-change methodology. We see that we know that it transforms how systems work, but knowing it is slightly different from being able to prove it, and there is always this thing in this game of being able to say how do we actually know that this happens is just sort of where I step in.
When I joined this organization there was very much a need for us to say what happens after the 100 days is a question that we get asked quite a lot. And we would think well, how do we actually know? We do know because we hear it from people and we see it happening and we see that through the 100 days communities are transforming the ways in which they work, and all these things are happening, all these different elements are happening and changing within their systems.
We do see that they get sustained afterwards. One of the first big pieces of work I did when I joined was a whole lot of sustainability interviews. So going out and talking to people who’ve been involved in 100-Day Challenges over the last few years to understand their perspective on firstly, what it was like being part of a challenge, what it meant for them, and what impacts it had at the time. But also, most importantly, what happened afterwards? So how did they see things sustaining afterwards, or what were the bits of it that really made that big a difference afterwards?
So we started doing a whole lot of analysis of those interviews, and at the same time, we started mapping out the innovations that drop out of a challenge. When a community are working on a challenge, they set a goal between them as to what it is they want to achieve, and what they then do is they work towards, they continually try and test new ideas to be able to see what works and they’re able to help them to achieve that goal. The things that drop out of, the actual activities, the innovations as we call them, and our definition of innovation is really changes, it’s any of those changes, these things they put in place that are helping something to happen on a sort of bigger scale.
What was really important to us is understanding that an innovation can be a new form of collaboration. It can be a WhatsApp group to enable people to communicate better. There’s all these different bits as well as it being a very structural shift in a policy or a new process or a new computer system or something much more tangible, which is what people traditionally think of in relation to innovation. We have those two things going on. We mapped out what do these innovations look like, and we spoke to people and asked them what had happened afterwards.
What I began to see was recognizing the different layers of an understanding of how a system was changing. And we could see what was coming out of it was that people were changing structural elements, as I just said, but they were also changing very clearly relationships, power dynamics, that part of it, and they were shifting their mindsets. So this to me rang bells because I’ve always loved The Water of Systems Change pyramid, triangle. It’s something that I’ve used in other work over the years. I’ve always loved it because it sort of made sense of the different layers of systems and systemic change and how you have to understand that.
What we were seeing very clearly is that the work that happens in a challenge we can map that. It’s a way of us understanding how our systems are changing, but more importantly, and this is where I come into the practice, the learning into practice stuff. It was very clearly a way for us to help our communities to understand that when you’re doing this work if we really want to think about how to shift a system, these are the different layers that we need to think about.
It’s a very longwinded way of saying that we did a series of in-depth analyses to understand how our 100-Day Challenge methodology works, what it is that comes out of it, and then taking that learning really demonstrated how systems were shifting and allowed us to feed that back into practice. So working with our catalysts and wonderful people like Peter to think how can we use this understanding in our methodology, which is what was the next step of that work.
Courtney W. Robertson: No, that was not a longwinded answer at all, and I appreciate you making the connection between what you all are already doing and then sort of existing framework to give I guess more codification to what your communities are doing or have been doing. I love what you said, Sarah, around innovation could be a new form of collaboration. I think it goes back to something that both Sean and Cathy highlighted what Sean said. We were really trying, we’re trying to get people to rethink impact and then Cathy, you highlighting that. This gave us an opportunity to think differently about how we were doing the work and not just how we individually are doing the work but how are we coming together as a set of partners and community to address a specific issue.
So I really appreciate that. And that innovation doesn’t have to be this big fancy, grand thing. People can really be innovative in very small and tangible ways as well. So I appreciate that.
So Cathy, I would love to hear about how the Rock Island community came together and engaged in this 100-Day Challenge. What was the focus that you all were centering it around all the things about it like what were goals and outcomes, what were some of the challenges, successes, pitfalls, etc., around you all engaging in this challenge?
Cathy Jordan: Wow, I’ve got a lot to tell. I hope I don’t bore people. So thank you. One of the things I’d like to start off with is kind of just lay some groundwork of how this came to be before the 100-Day Challenge.
You may not be aware, but the state of Illinois has effectively declared that they are now focusing on ending homelessness. From that has come a stream of money/service ideas through the Home Illinois project, and part of this project was addressing both urban and rural homelessness. The Supportive Housing Providers Association which is a nonprofit agency in Springfield started a conversation about 100-Day Challenges. Can we get some communities around Illinois outside of Cook County because when you travel people think of Illinois as Chicago but also understanding that our rural communities need just as much assistance as an urban area does but how do we do that? How do we make that happen because resources are not the same.
There is not equity at the table for people that experience homelessness so this challenge for Project NOW was twofold. First of all, we need data. We can’t tell a story if there’s no data. Got to have data. Number two was we have a really big hill to climb because people don’t think there’s people that are homeless in their community, especially rural USA. Mercer County is no different, so this is not a stigma per se, it’s a lack of education.
So we were focused on doing (a) good data collection, getting the right people around the table, helping us dissect and understand what’s happening in that county, and number two, achieving creating that system, if you will. It’s not going to be perfect. It’s going to be kind of clunky. It’s going to have a few waxes and wanes and we go here and we go there but understanding that we can’t address something if we don’t know what we’re up against.
Courtney W. Robertson: Could you tell us a bit more, Cathy, just about what you all specifically focused on, what was sort of the—your end goal with the 100-Day Challenge, and then what were some of those again sort of successes that you noticed in doing this work in a different way, where were those challenges so sort of painting the picture for what that experience was like for you all.
Cathy Jordan: Mercer County has approximately 16,000 people in it, and the largest city has 3,600. There are no homeless services. There are very little resources in that county so one of the goals was first to bring the right people around the table. Who can help us understand maybe the mechanisms of the county, understand how you navigate what resources there are, and then what do we actually want to do with all of this. So first goal was how many people do we want to find? How many people do we want to identify as experiencing homelessness?
We decided right away to adopt also, the state of Illinois has another nuance to homelessness besides the federal standards if you will or the federal definition. They also consider those that are doubled up to be homeless, so we created that mechanism as well to understand those that are unstably housed or at risk of becoming homeless.
We then identified what made sense, and we’re going to go big, right? Go big or go home so we decided in 100 days that we were going to find 100 people experiencing homelessness either (a) literally or (b) doubled up, and then we were going to bring them services, making sure they’re connected where they can. We also wanted to make sure that we are giving equity to what equity needs to be, and in a rural county we weren’t sure if we had people that identified as BIPOC, so Black indigenous people of color. So that was a lofty goal as well. We wanted to find five and we found three, which is great. It’s absolutely great. We also wanted to make sure that when we connected people to that stable housing or found them the way to that housing, that we did that quickly.
So in the first 45 days we said we are going to house 13 people, and that goal was surpassed with 16. We didn’t quite make the goal of 100. We got 50 people, and we successfully housed 30 through that whole 100-Day Challenge. The greatest success besides those numbers, data, right? Data is a success, is we actually got people to talk. We got people to understand maybe what their idea of homelessness was and maybe what those that provide services, what our idea was, and how do we meld those together. How do we understand that we both have skin in the game?
One of the largest challenges in Mercer County is people that experienced homelessness were trying to access the health care system first, and the health care system was not designed to handle that type of load. So when Project NOW came in, we were able to offer some resources. We were able to offer the data collection system for the 100-Day Challenge. We were able to offer some additional staff that could be part of that discussion and organization. Project NOW was instrumental in finding that person with lived expertise to sit around our table and talk with us about the realities of what it’s like to be homeless in a rural community when there’s nothing. Those were extremely important things that we did together as a team.
I’d love to tell you it was rosy, and it was great, and we all got along so well, and everybody just had a great time, and then I probably wouldn’t be exactly honest. We certainly weren’t at each other’s throats, but I think it’s safe to say that the work is heavy, and the people that we see are in chaos and crisis, and it’s hard. It’s hard to have the phones ringing off the hook, and people walking in, especially when we started to advertise or let people know that we wanted to talk to those about their housing stability. I’d like to tell you that we all ended the challenge on a happy note. I think some of us think a little differently about what goals we achieved and the successes of those, and some were kind of disappointed that we didn’t get to that 100, that we didn’t find 100 people. Could we have tried harder?
I like to live in the world of let’s be real. We started with zero data and zero people, and in 100 days we acknowledged and found 50. That’s tremendously important on how we can acknowledge that there is a problem in rural USA. Mercer County is no different.
One of the pitfalls we found was besides squabbling about there’s not enough money and not enough people and not enough this, how do we use the resources that are limited to maximize the best things that we do? We were very innovative on a couple of ideas, and I think Peter thought we were a little crazy to be perfectly honest.
Peter, I’m going to speak for you just for a minute but we decided to use public venues to get the word out to (a) landlords because we needed help with affordable housing, and (b) are you experiencing a housing challenge, whether living in your car or you’re doubled up with family so we used two public events, the Mercer County Fair which everybody goes to in Mercer County, and the Rhubarb Fest because Aledo, Illinois is the capital of rhubarb, and these brings thousands of people through the admission gates to see the sites and to eat rhubarb, and to see the stock car races and all sorts of things, and we set up a booth in conjunction with our partners at the Mercer County Health Department, and had really cute cards with QR codes, and we talked to people about really difficult situations that they’re in, and letting them know that we may not necessarily have the right solution right now today but we’re here to listen and we’re here to try to help to move you from a place that’s not stable to a place that’s much more stable.
So the 100-Day Challenge to me was tremendously important of a good start, and through the sustainability conference that we had, we have a path forward. We know that we’re going to have stresses, we’re going to have things that will challenge us, but we know in the end the system that we created is so important.
Even if it’s in a small, 16,000-person county, it’s tremendously important to acknowledge people and to provide dignity, and to get them the housing that they need to live a very good life.
Courtney W. Robertson: Cathy, Cathy, Cathy, my brain is in overdrive right now. One, I just want to say kudos to your point around scale, right? Relative to the population that you all have in that county and in the various cities, this is significant. To your point, you all came together with nothing, created something and were able to help a lot of people, right? You didn’t reach the goal that you set out, but you were able to help a lot of people, and so, one, kudos on that. I have a lot of questions. One, I’m curious to know how did you all land on sort of like what that focus would be and what strategies and tactics you would take to get to that outcome?
Cathy Jordan: OK, so one of the things that we did was have good listening ears so what was our partners in Mercer County hearing and what were they frustrated with, and how those of us that actually deliver homeless services, how can we help them mold that goal.
Peter was tremendously important to us to keep us focused because a lot of us like to talk out in the weeds but also RE!NSTITUTE is committed to understanding what the whole system looks like so when we kind of just took our personal skin out of it, if you will, and stepped back and what does this community need and how can we do that, the goals came together much easier.
When we kind of took our personal edge off of it—our law enforcement partners had no idea that it would be important for their input on goals so also just seeing people, hearing them, and letting them be part of that goal-making process was really important.
Courtney W. Robertson: Thank you for that, and I have another question for you but before I get to that question, Peter, would love to hear just from you from the RE!NSTITUTE side and being the person supporting that collaborative work. Just would love to hear sort of your insights and thoughts as a person who is not engaged in the work but who’s supporting the work and what that looks like because as you know, much of our audience, they work in backbone organizations and typically aren’t the people on the ground, on the front line doing the work but are supporting those folks so I think it could be really useful and helpful for them to hear what your support looked like and sort of like what that experience was for you.
Peter Muse: Yeah, I think as Cathy said, a major focus of mine was kind of just keeping the focus on the challenge going around, making sure that we were progressing towards that numeric goal that they established, and then as they were coming to the different barriers, kind of creating the space for a conversation of what is actually creating these barriers for us.
Alluding back I guess to the triangle from earlier, instead of just saying, OK, we’re running into a problem, kind of being more organized and intentional with what is creating that problem. Is it issues such as practices or lack of resources, and then as those things are identified, creating the space to start talking about how do we make those necessary changes.
Cathy is being far too modest by the way in her earlier speech. I think the initial thought when going into Mercer County was that there might be five people who are experiencing homelessness there. That was our initial statement of what we thought that numeric number was, and then they eventually got up to identifying 50 people who were experiencing homelessness whether that be staying in a place not meant for human habitation or if they’re in this situational homelessness type of capacity so I think they also handled that incredibly because they had a perception that there’s five people experiencing homelessness, they’re now going to bring to the community that there’s—no, no, no, there’s 50. This problem is much larger than we viewed so as we’re starting to build that to scale and how do we bring to the community that it is actually a larger issue. How do we start coming up with the resolution so that we’re not just providing negative attention to this new finding.
So my work, because of how incredible Mercer County is, was fairly easy but the focus of it was to keep it focused on the idea of the challenge, not letting it drift too far, and then as much as possible looking at these more root causes or systemic issues that are creating some of the things we’re seeing.
Courtney W. Robertson: So, Peter, just for clarify for myself and potentially the audience, were you the person sort of on the ground facilitating those conversations and meetings, etc.?
Peter Muse: So the meetings themselves were led by the team leads. When we had our launch workshop, we identified two members of the team who act as team leads, leadership for this team during the 100-Day Challenge, one of which was Cathy so she would be the one who was leading the meetings along with her fellow team lead, Heidi.
I would do a lot of work behind the scenes helping them maybe prepare for the meeting or identify what it needs to be or kind of what the focus of that meeting should be but one of the things that we want to do with the challenge that helps with the sustainability of it is as much as possible we want members of the community or members of the team to be the ones who are driving it forward so that that way when the 100-Day Challenge ends, RE!NSTITUTE doesn’t have as much of a footprint in the community. The work is able to be carried forward, so a lot of my work was kind of more just supporting the team and as much as possible kind of behind the scenes.
Courtey W. Robertson: Thank you for that clarity. So with that, because, Cathy, you all recently ended your challenge, is that correct?
Cathy Jordan:That is correct. The beginning of August.
Courtney W. Robertson: So, very recently. I’m curious to hear then what have been some of those early lessons. I’m sure you all are still processing and sort of thinking about next steps. What have been some of those early lessons learned from you and just from the collaborative in general as you think about the work that you all took on?
Cathy Jordan:Early lessons?
Courtney W. Robertson: Lessons learned, I’m sorry.
Cath Jordan: Breathe.Everybody breathe.
I think the earlier lessons that we learned were that we need to take our time and not assume which means we need to be very diligent about the goals we identified, and like Peter said, how do we dissect that? Let’s just not plow through it, and let’s bring the people to the table and really listen to everyone. Everyone seemed to have a little bit of the nugget to the picture of the puzzle if you will, and one or two of us, we didn’t come to the meetings because not everyone’s schedule can accommodate every meeting. We were missing like part of the wheel to make the car go so we really needed to keep communication going.
I do think also the earlier lessons were we owned at Project NOW some of the kerfuffle is my favorite word to use of moving people from point A to point B. It literally took people in our system between paperwork and phone calls and people like 45 days just to be heard, and so we owned that. We stepped up and said you know what? This is a problem, and this is internal with us, so we started to adjust some of the things that we did in response, and no one really had a hard look at that dynamic of what I call the timeline when someone’s identified as experiencing homelessness and how we move them through.
We did a very painstaking meeting with that, and we all agreed that it’s too long. People are put through too much, so it wasn’t necessarily all about the 100-Day Challenge to get to the end. That’s the bonus, right? We want to get there but it also is really having good discussions and diving deep with each other about how we make this better or can we just toss something out that we don’t have to do anymore, and realistic that the healthcare system cannot handle the homeless system. We have to work in conjunction, being really good partners and collaborative partners and referrals so it was great to have our health department personnel, the local hospital at the table, really good to hear what they’ve been trying to do and how this challenge could significantly make a difference.
Courtney W. Robertson: I appreciate that so much. I used to do some work with schools, and a lot of times they would talk about, one, the inaccuracy of data, right? But also just like how cumbersome the process could be to get to like inputting data and turning data around and doing all those things, and so to your point, although they had this goal of decreasing chronic absenteeism and decreasing out-of-school suspensions, so much of the earlier work did focus on what’s our process and is our process tight? Are we tight internally so they can get to these outcomes.
So I appreciate you lifting up that piece because I think it often gets neglected in this type of work, and we so much focus externally that we forget to take care of those internal pieces which, in my opinion, the stronger you are internally, the stronger you can be externally so I do appreciate you lifting up that piece around process and owning that and being able to say we’re in this and we’re now seeing that this is a huge pain point. How do we pivot and adjust in real time so that we make this easier for the people we’re trying to support and not just trying to make it easier for ourselves, right? So I definitely appreciate you highlighting that.
I’m curious, Cathy, because there’s such an intentional focus on systems change at the front end, how has that shifted sort of how you’re thinking about the work moving forward and even how maybe the collective itself, the collective of partners, has been thinking about the work, and particularly your role in shifting how systems are working.
Cathy Jordan: This is the exciting part for me. This is the boom. So from this work we did at Mercer County, the continuum of care that Mercer County is within—it’s called the Northwestern Illinois Continuum of Care—it wants to adapt it for all of their 14 rural counties in terms of—and they throw me under the bus, but they want me to start leading some of those discussions.
Now every county looks a little different so in this 15-county continuum, one is urban, 14 are rural so we want to start discussions at each of those county levels of how can we help move this. This would have not been possible without the work with RE!NSTITUTE helping us with the 100-Day Challenge, to give us that blueprint, if you will.
The other thing that has happened is we have started to see now philanthropy step up to the table. Shocker. Everyone thinks that there’s federal and state grants and money is going to be out there from that level, and now we actually have a nonprofit in Mercer County that does community development. They talk with businesses, and they talk with philanthropers and other things, and we’ve now got people that want to be a part of this movement to meet that gap.
So when we can’t find affordable housing, we have a guy that wants to start building housing. I don’t know what that’s going to look like but I’m excited, and it’s in Mercer County because that’s where he lives. But starting conversations now that we can show that the work can be done, and that the support that we got from RE!NSTITUTE was just critical, absolutely critical. There’s also a report that we just did, a real basic report back up to the state about how important it was that they allocated money so that we could have this. So again, tremendously important for this movement forward. It could not have happened without a healthy start.
Courtney W. Robertson: That’s incredibly powerful. It’s kind of like you know sometimes you have to build a proof of something before people get on board but it’s really great to hear that you have so many stakeholders who are interested in both continuing the work there but also expanding it across the state.
That was actually going to be one of my next questions around what’s next for the work. So are there any things in addition to what you’ve just offered, Cathy, as you think about the next steps with the work? I’m particularly interested in what’s happening within Mercer County with those sets of partners. Are you all looking to continue working together, and what does that look like?
Cathy Jordan: We are absolutely going to stick it. We’re in it for the long haul. We built this. We’re going to see it out.
There are some really great things. The state of Illinois has granted through this Home Illinois plan to end homelessness money to each continuum of care in Illinois, and the continuum I talked about a little while ago will be receiving money that we will specifically target Mercer County for permanent supportive housing because we did identify people that are chronically homeless. We did identify that there are problems with domestic violence survivors not having access to housing so this money is new, brand new, and it’s state money so it doesn’t have some of the federal feel to it, if you will, for those of you in that field.
We also know that the sustainability will now continue to meet monthly and the new stakeholders that want to come to the table are invited to do so, and we have dissected much further our triangles of we’ve identified this goal, who do we have to have here, and being very intentional about invitations and about the excitement now that we can share to really generate them wanting to be a part of this.
I was privileged a few months ago to be on a call with Will County, Illinois, who is also one of the 100-Day Challenges, and they were kind of sputtering, if you will, and I don’t mean that in a negative sense. I mean that they’re tired. The work is hard, and we all have 40-hour week jobs, and this was on top of that so we all acknowledge that we only can burn the candle at two ends or four ends or six ends, whichever way your candle looks like but hearing them on the phone and just some of their struggles and knowing that I’ve been there, and we’ve been there, and let me help you and encourage you really just shows that this is not just segmented to Mercer County. This is something that everyone struggles with, and this challenge gave us this beauty of, yep, we’ve been through it, yep, we’ve seen some of the ugly stuff that can happen but there really is growth through this both for me on a professional level as well on a personal level, another challenge in later life that you can over easy come the hurdle if you will but it also knows that we have partners around our state that have the same feelings, the same issues, the same challenges that we can share beyond those county borders to make sure that we’re helping as many people as possible in the state to end their cycle of homelessness.
Courtney W. Robertson: That’s beautiful and it sounds like that’s an opportunity to even build a learning community around this approach to the work as an opportunity statewide so it’s awesome. I would love to hear from each of you and really coming from your role I think would be really helpful but for those who are listening and are like I really want to—oh, Peter—
Peter Muse: Yeah, if I could interject just for a second to talk a little bit about the work that’s occurring in Mercer County going forward in somewhat of a more localized fashion. I apologize. I should have kind of gone over the timeline of the 100-Day Challenge earlier in the podcast so this may be a little late for it but after a community has been identified, we go into our discovery phase where we get a great opportunity to learn the local community’s focus are, what they really want to work on throughout the challenge. We then have our system leader design session where we bring in the system leaders who establish the focus, identify who’s going to be on the team. We then get into the launch workshop which is where we establish the goal and the governance of the challenge while also building out the work streams. About day 50 we have the midpoint review where we’re able to reflect back on what’s happened over the past 50 days and where we want to take the challenge going forward.
After day 100 we have our sustainability workshop, and I promise this will tie into the question in just one second. We have the sustainability workshop where we talk about what’s happened during the challenge and start identifying what the actionable next steps are for sustainability, and then we get into our what’s next workshop which is where we bring back those system leaders from the system leader design session where we present them with what’s happened during the challenge. Now that’s not to say there hasn’t been back and forth throughout the process the entire time to make sure that the system leaders are engaged but this is a very intentional meeting.
After that midpoint review around day 50, and Cathy had alluded to this, I’ll call a cantankerous meeting where we did a system journey walking somebody from the beginning to the end of a cycle of homelessness so where they currently were to what would it take to get this person stably housed. We used actually a very specific client with every identifier we could use without giving up confidentiality for the client just because not all of us are part of the Mercer County system, and we started looking at all of the different avenues it would take to get this person into stable housing.
What we found was that about 95 percent of these pathways led to Project NOW. Now that rate shows how incredible Project NOW is and that’s not to say other parts of the community weren’t involved, the issue being that Project NOW is not a Mercer Country organization. They’re from Rock Island. Now they serve Mercer County because it’s a continuum of care but they’re not a local organization, and what we found was we want to utilize some of the next 50 days to put an emphasis on shifting ownership of the homeless response system in Mercer County to Mercer County.
So while Project NOW will never leave, if it’s your backyard, take care of your backyard type of approach so we started looking at all of the different ways that that could occur, and this is where the triangle really started to take focus on the challenge. If we’re going to make this shift occur, what policies need to change? What practices need to change? What mindsets need to change, such as homelessness exists in Mercer County.
When we got to that sustainability workshop, that’s where we started putting those action steps in place as Cathy alluded to of, OK, we’re going to make this policy change but to make this policy change, who from Mercer County needs to be involved, and we attached that leader. If we’re going to make this practice change, what organization needs to be a part and we attached that as well.
So one of the biggest system shifts and one of the biggest changes that I see going forward in Mercer County is that while Project NOW is not leaving and while Mercer County organizations have always been a big part of it, the ownership now is significantly more in Mercer County’s hands.
Courtney W. Robertson: No, thanks for that context, Peter, because I think I was thinking about Rock Island being in Mercer County so that’s super helpful to hear those connection points for sure so thank you for that additional context.
So as we near unfortunately the end of this conversation, I’d love to hear from each of you based on where you’re seated in this work and your role, for those who are thinking about, like, I would like to do something like that, whether it’s 100 days or they’re just like we want to implement some type of timebound shift in our work, what is the one thing you would say they should be considering or be thinking about or what might be a first step that they take to doing that?
Peter Muse: I can jump into that since I’m now all wound up from the last question. So I would say one of the things they have to do is start with an honest assessment of where their community is, right? This doesn’t work if we’re not being honest with ourselves.
I know coming from the homeless response system, we say that we want to make changes but then when we start taking inventory of what’s working, what’s not, we’re kind of a little lenient in some areas and maybe harsher on other ones so it has to be a true honest assessment of where your system currently is. I would take an inventory of all the existing resources. Cathy did a great job of alluding to not just looking at the homeless response system resources but what else exists here and who’s not participating, and make sure they come in.
Most communities, when you’re looking at data or an understanding of your resources, they’ll look at things such as their homeless inventory count but they’re not looking at what adjacent systems are involved so they’re limiting what resources are available to them. Establish a baseline in whatever it may be. If we’re talking specifically to the homeless response system and you don’t have a homeless management information system or some sort of data backing, what does exist? Is there census information? Is there point-in-time count information that you can utilize for your community? Establish some sort of baseline because the more you can be data driven, the more in real time you know if you’re seeing success.
And then I would create a push goal. I wouldn’t say we’re going to do exactly what we did last month or we’re going to do one percent to 10 percent better, really push your system because what you’re trying to do is actually create systemic change so if you’re just doing the same thing you’ve already done, you’re not getting change, you’re just repeating a pattern so I would really create that push goal, and I wouldn’t focus just on that structural change. I would focus on that whole systemic change, hopefully getting as deep as a mindset shift within your community so that’s what I would do, and I know that’s a lot but in a lot of ways it’s just be honest with yourself and push yourself, and keep track of it.
Sean Whitten: I would add to that I think it’s important for folks to really do an assessment of how are they engaging with people who have lived experience in whatever sector that is, right? Are they speaking to folks in civil society about how are those that have experienced gender-based violence feeling about the system, and what are the things they need to see in order to feel better? How are we working with folks who have been through our system as it relates to homelessness who have received services, and have firsthand knowledge about what the issues are that they experienced trying to navigate that system?
A lot of times when we’re at our events and the community starts their system mapping activity, they’re confused about what happens in their system so imagine what it’s like to be somebody who’s actually on the receiving end of those services having difficulty navigating it.
I would say the other really, really important thing is centering equity in the work that you’re doing regardless of the sector. Equity comes in many different forms or lack of equity but thinking about how to—in our efforts to change our systems, what are our plans to make this system more equitable for the people that it serves?
I think we know through history and many other things that our systems are designed in very particular ways and at times those systems are not looking at things equitably, and we have the opportunity to think about what equity looks like and to make those shifts. So I would say make sure that the voices, experience, and knowledge of folks with lived experience is at the table, and that all of the things that you’re doing within your system to change that system or transform it centers equity and how that can play a role in making our systems more equitable.
Sarah Robens: I would like to encourage people to not be scared of giving things a go and of just getting into it and going for it. We talk about our team setting some unbelievable goals, just putting something out there that gets people excited and gets them moving forward but then being aware of the fact that people do get scared of just trying things partly because we work in systems which create a fear of failure, and that is no way—you have to innovate in order to make the systems change, really change how things work. As Peter said, you can’t just continue doing the same thing but doing it more. That doesn’t—that’s not going to change the system so people have to be encouraged to really open up and be given permission to innovate, and for that to happen in many systems, people need to be aware of their fears and that then can sometimes create difficulties in relationships so being aware of that complexity around collaboration and the need for honest conversations so that people feel that they can just give things a go and try as many things as possible with all sort of, like Cathy mentioned different approaches they use, just think of all those different things that you could try, get the right people in the room to allow you to do it and give it a go.
Cathy Jordan: People are important and we’ve got to try. If we’ve been doing something the same way for the last 10 years, then it’s not working. We’ve got to try something different, and I echo everyone else’s comments about you can’t be afraid. You’ve got to take that first step and bring the right people around.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, you just have to put some more air in the tire or maybe you’ve got to change it, put a different tire on but you’ve got to try. The stakes that—I live in the world of housing as health care. People will do nothing in life without a house. They won’t, and so we just need to be very creative and have conversations, and don’t be afraid to be good advocates and to talk about the real work that you do to people that may not have an understanding, and then buckle in and hold on for the ride because that’s exactly what happened with our 100-Day Challenge. We had really no idea what was going to happen but we’re in for the long haul so don’t be afraid.
Courtney W. Robertson: Thank you all. I’m taking notes as well. You all make me think about sort of two of my mantras in life. One is like fail forward, right? Sometimes you just have to stumble through, things won’t be perfect, and then so fail forward, and then this thing—I have a friend who always tells me do it scared. You might be scared but do it scared, right? You never know what will happen, so I appreciate you all lifting up those things around using data, being honest about the realities of where your system and the challenges that you’re facing within those systems are, honoring people, right? People holistically but also centering people with lived experience, remembering equity and centering that, and then again, this idea around facing your fears and just doing it scared, really appreciate those things that I think are really—regardless of what issue people are focusing on or collaboratives are focusing on, those are really I think grounded things that anybody can take so I appreciate you all.
So in our last couple of minutes would love to hear both from you, Cathy, and from whoever on the RE!NSTITUTE team would like to share, just ways that people can keep up with your work or get involved with your work so how can they keep in touch?
Cathy Jordan: Project NOW does have a webpage and you can find us there to reach out to find out the different things that we do. When we’re talking about the Mercer County initiative directly, we would probably be better just to—I’m not sure how to get a hold of us through that because we’re just kind of a grassroots and we don’t have all that good organization stuff but if they do reach out through Project NOW, they will direct that eventually down towards me. I also think that just the bigger view of all of this is be informed. If you’re not working directly in the field, be informed, whether it’s through Project NOW or through someone in your community. There’s many great things happening in every single state regarding housing and people, and I don’t know if RE!NSTITUTE can handle a bunch of phone calls or emails or text messages, but they are amazing people that will just continue to do amazing work beyond the work that they’ve helped us with, so I look forward to seeing more about them in the future as well.
Sean Whitten: I can go ahead and jump in here for RE!NSTITUTE. You can definitely visit our website at re-institute.org or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also following us on IG would be great. We tell a lot of the stories from communities and what they’re experiencing, their challenges as well as their innovations, and that is reinstitute_IG where you can hear more about those communities.
Courtney W. Robertson: Awesome. I want to give another huge, huge, huge thank you to Cathy, to Sarah, to Sean, and to Peter for joining us today and sharing about the 100-Day Challenge and really pushing people around systems change and systems transformation. That is why we’re doing the work, in service of equity, right, and being a more equitable society so I want to thank you all for your gifts of expertise, knowledge, time today, and want to thank our listeners for being continued supporters of the Collective Impact Forum podcast.
And this closes out this episode of the Collective Impact Forum podcast. If you are interested in learning more about what was discussed, you can find links to resources in the footnotes for this episode. And if you’re enjoying all that we share at the Collective Impact Forum podcast, we encourage you to rate us on your preferred podcast platform, and share your favorite episodes with colleagues.
We would like to acknowledge that this episode was produced and edited on the unceded, traditional lands of the Coast Salish people, including the Duwamish, Suquamish, Stillaguamish, and Muckleshoot tribes. We honor with gratitude the land itself and the past, present, and futures of these tribes.
The Intro music for this episode was composed by Rafael Krux and our outro music is composed by Kevin Macleod.
In Forum news, we’re excited to share that registration is now open for the 2024 Collective Impact Action Summit, that will be held online this April 30-May 2, 2024. It’s our biggest learning event of the year, featuring over 25 virtual sessions, and sharing out best practices from collaboratives from across the U.S. and globally. And we’re excited to announce that our closing keynote will be with political leader and changemaker Stacey Abrams that will discuss the power of movement building. Please visit our events section at collectiveimpactforum.org if you would like to join the 2024 Collective Impact Action Summit.
This is Tracy Timmons-Gray, Associate Director here at the Collective Impact Forum, and your podcast producer. I want to say thank you so much for listening, and we look forward to connecting with you more in our next episode. Until next time, let’s keep working towards collective impact.