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UIX: Essential Needs Task Force is rethinking the way Kent County addresses poverty

Wende Randall

When families have to choose between paying utility bills and affording food, it's hard to find hope. For the many faced with that decision in Kent County, the Essential Needs Task Force is a crucially supportive resource.
Every morning in West Michigan, hundreds of thousands wake up in their own homes and enjoy a quick breakfast before heading out the door to work. Those comfortable enough to find it routine may even consider it a daily grind, but for many others without access to the same resources, it's a dream taken much less for granted.
 
The unemployed, homeless, and hungry have much more to worry about than the monotony of a 9 to 5. An eviction notice or power shut-off can severely disrupt stability at home, and when families have to choose between paying utility bills and affording food, it's hard to find hope.
 
For the many faced with that decision, the Essential Needs Task Force is a crucially supportive resource.
 
The ENTF seeks to provide all Kent County residents with access to service providers who specialize in transportation, nutritious food, efficient energy sources, employment and housing. While not a service provider itself, the organization plays a key role in connecting the dots, helping local service providers make the most of what they're doing.
 
Taking over for Traci Coffman, who previously guided the ENTF into a new era of using various data sources to augment strategic change, newly installed director Wende Randall brings over a decade of workforce development experience to the organization. And in her understanding of essential service provisions, it's not out of the question to be working herself out of a job.

Wende Randall
 
In the first few months of her new position, Randall hopes to initiate systemic processes between the ENTF's service providers and bring Kent County to a point where the need for utilization for these types of services is decreased. 
 
"In order to accomplish that, we have to look at how the systems operate and identify the intersecting points between the various systems," Randall says. "Obviously, someone in poverty isn't experiencing just one deficit in their life. There are multiple things affecting their situation."
 
The paths to remedy that situation may not always be clear, of course. There's never been a one-stop-shop for anyone and everyone to turn to, and the ENTF isn't trying to be that, but a breakdown in communication between essential needs service providers can make the process more difficult than it needs to be. Randall has set out to create and emphasize intersectional points between its providers, allowing individuals or families in need to find several paths to the resources they lack, and assistance in improving their situation over the long term.
 
"Over the last couple of years, each of the committee areas has done some extensive work on building out their strategies and setting goals and plans for achieving those outcomes," Randall says. "We're bringing the committees together to resolve systems issues more, so there isn't that feeling of isolation. For someone who is looking to resolve a specific need, I would like to see them have the clear navigation to be able to resolve multiple needs, along with support, and access to those resources."
 
Community of Resources
 
In helping individuals navigate the map of service provision, whether they're seeking help for employment, housing, or any of the other focuses of the ENTF, an equal amount of mapping and development must be applied to the systems in which the providers operate. Ultimately, Randall says, the best way to connect residents with the resources they lack is to improve how those resources are facilitated.
 
"None of us can be an expert in everything but if we know the right networks and the connecting points, then we have the ability to expand our own capability and utilize more of the work that's being done in other areas," she says. 
 
Building awareness is extremely important for the ENTF. As of the publication of this article, there are yet very few who have even heard of the organization, let alone understand what it does. Over the next few months, Randall hopes to work on awareness building through events in the community, emphasizing the idea of systems being addressed as systems rather than being addressed as immediate crisis intervention needs. 
 
Defining Needs
 
The service providers the ENTF works with are endlessly gracious, and do all they can to help those they serve, but they can only treat the symptoms of ofttimes much greater issues. Meeting a need in the form of a meal, utility stipend, housing voucher, or bus pass can mean an awful lot to a family that's fallen on hard times. Sadly, it will never bring them out of poverty.
 
"I think a lot of times when people see a need, they try to do something with an immediate recognizable impact," Randall says. 
 
The ENTF's Food and Nutrition committee facilitates and reports on the county's food assistance programs. An increase in such programs would theoretically reduce the number of residents who are going without those resources because it allows for multiple places, and easier access. But it's not addressing the situation that family is experiencing and what got them to that point. 
 
From her director's seat, Randall can look at the long term goals for making healthy nutritious food available in the communities in and around food deserts. By looking at the household situation and studying trends there, she can see if it's really an employment issue, a mental or physical health or disability issue. It's the ENTF's goal to excel at systems building to such an extent that crises are stemmed, the issues that have led to poverty or struggle are resolved, and the communities are adequately supported
 
"It feels good to say, 'I've served this many people today,' but to be able to back up from that and say, 'Here's how I served this many people so they don't find themselves in a situation ever again,' that's really the efforts that the ENTF is looking at," Randall says. 
 
Organizing Solutions
 
Randall's background in workforce development has more than prepared her for the programs within that committee in the ENTF, but she says it's also important to look at what's happening outside the organization to best advantage people's attention or other advocacy that might be going on.
 
For the last 14 years, Randall has worked as director of workforce development for Goodwill Industries. For the last two, she has led a collaborative project that was supported and funded by by the Heart of West Michigan United Way. She helped pilot the idea of collective impact, allowing for multiple service providers to come together under one objective and work toward connecting the dots for households navigating the service landscape. When individuals with multiple needs come through the system and need to be connected to another, oftentimes they fall through the cracks, Randall says. The pilot program sought to address that issue.
 
"Either the relationship isn't there or the timing doesn't work out. Something doesn't come to fruition when they get moved onto another organization," she says. "The idea behind that collaborative project was to bring these organizations together and create a navigational network for them so that there isn't only one door to enter into employment related services." 
 
That sense of collaboration will be applied to the service providers working under the ENTF's five areas of focus, providing more efficient and more accessible assistance. Randall is eager to bring her experiences to the table, along with her committee members, on connecting service providers through a open and communicative network.
 
"I've seen from that lens how all of the other systems impact someone's ability to be successful in employment and provide a sustainable income for a household," she says. "This really became an exciting opportunity for me to say, 'I see how it impacts employment,' and maybe this is a way, based on my experience with this smaller project in workforce development, this is an opportunity to bring those strategies together and really align them to make systems change."
 
Network Support
 
Jesica Vail, Coordinator for the Coalition to End Homelessness, and Jim Talen, HMIS Administrator for the Coalition on Homelessness and a Kent County Commissioner, make up the other two ENTF staff members, apart from Randall.
 
Vail, a macro-practice social worker (MSW) with a degree in political science, has worked with survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse, helped citizens returning to communities after incarceration, and worked abroad to prevent children from entering orphanages and get them back into families.
 
In each of these areas, she says, the effects of poverty made bad situations worse and having a safe home for respite has consistently been a critical need for all people, no matter their situation. The Coalition to End Homelessness, made up of more than 60 agencies and individuals in Kent County, seeks to bring local residents out of homelessness, and plant them in safe, affordable housing. 
 
Vail has worked for the Coalition since October 2013, and during that time has seen a shift in the way the organization views its measurable outcomes, "with a focus on measuring if our efforts are improving people’s lives, rather than just counting the number of contacts or dollars committed," she says.
 
But the job is not without its challenges. The community's resources to address homelessness are limited, and only applied to those who are "literally homeless," Vail says. 
 
"The ENTF is helpful in that there are other groups of providers that can help those struggling with housing instability address their needs through alternate methods, such as assistance in finding more gainful employment than what they may currently have," she says.
 
Just like every other focus of the ENTF, the Coalition understands that there are deeper issues behind the symptom of homelessness. It's finding ways around those structural barriers and ending poverty at its root that provides the greatest challenge of all.
 
"Homelessness, hunger, poor educational attainment—these are all symptoms of poverty that is deeply rooted into generations of our community members’ families," she says. "If we as a society opted to give everyone a level starting place and ensure that fighting to meet basic needs did not dominate a person’s day and night, we could see amazing growth in our world. There is so much potential lost to poverty and all of its struggles."
 
The Coalition's Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) meets federal requirements, and is managed at the state level but it fails to tell a story about individual neighborhoods. Only the last permanent zip code for each person who has accepted services for homelessness is recorded.
 
Opening the ENTF data up to the Coalition has helped Vail and others delve into the deeper issues behind homelessness, by providing neighborhood and community-specific information.
 
"We see that people of color are over represented in our homeless system through HMIS, but the ENTF data can show us more about how many jobs are accessible to neighborhoods that are  predominately composed of people of color," Vail says. "This helps us see a more detailed picture about structural barriers to communities in our county and understand why pockets of poverty persist."
 
Measuring Success
 
HMIS Systems Administrator Jim Talen works with the record keeping operations for the ENTF. He joined coalition staff in 2013. 
 
Using HMIS data, Talen can determine where homeless individuals have been in the system, If they move from one agency to another, and determine of the ENTF and Coalition are handing homelessness.
 
As precise as the data can be, identifying and determining the best way to assist homeless populations can still be an difficult task. After a year of working with the ENTF, Talen recalls, the number of homeless veterans in the community were thought to have ben identified and progress was being made on moving them into stable housing. But after a closer look at the records, the problem wasn't getting any better
 
"Even though we were housing a lot of veterans we didn't seem to be making a lot of progress in the situation," Talen says. "More people kept showing up than we were housing. We still don't know exactly why that is, but one of the theories is that people in other communities were hearing veterans were getting housing here and started moving to the Grand Rapids area."
 
Talen believes that theory has been debunked, but it more than illustrates the difficulty in measuring progress when dealing with widespread issues. What the HMIS is able to track with great success, is how long it sakes someone, once they enter the system, from that time of homelessness until they are permanently housed.
 
"The longer that takes, the less people we can get into permanent housing. We have a limited amount of resources," Talen says. "Having that data allows us to know how we are doing."
 
Along with the entry into housing, HMIS data looks at whether previously homeless individuals are able to keep that housing for up to two years later, and which service providers are more adequately assisting individuals and families to do so.
 
Systematic Change
 
The ENTF isn't really a service management organization so much as a system change organization. When the dots between homelessness and a lack of available employment are discovered in an area, the Coalition is able to share that with the employment and workforce development subgroup of ENTF. The committees can then work together on ways for people to get employment, to be able to get to their jobs, and for people to get training, which helps address the greater issue of homelessness. 
 
"As long as employers are in Walker and Cascade and people who are poor, unemployed, and experiencing homelessness are in Grand Rapids and Wyoming, transportation doesn't get to those places and those jobs, that's a systems problem," Talen says. "The ENTF's work is to try to take a look at those systems and how those systems could be tweaked in order to provide better support for people."
 
Randall and her colleagues at the ENTF are able to to pull service providers together and make the system more effective through collaboration. Using funding from the county, grants, and foundational support, they've been able to take deeper dives into areas of concern, and the next few years should see some positive indicators of change. Not from the number of people they've helped, but the number who no longer need it.
 
"the idea that someone doesn't cycle through the system a bunch of times is really exciting to me," Randall says. "That we can support them to a level that they're then able to sustain themselves and make positive choices for that next step in the journey is really the goal."
 
For more information on the ENTF, visit http://entfkent.org/
 
Photography by Steph Harding
 
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com.
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