The next right thing: How to respond in the face of stupid suffering

Author: Katelin Cortney, Guest Writer

The next right thing 

How to respond in the face of stupid suffering


“Stupid suffering.”

This is how Jen Loving, CEO of LEO partner Destination: Home, describes the housing crisis in Santa Clara County.

She’s right. When it comes to an epidemic like homelessness, it’s hard to watch, and I imagine even more so for those—like Jen and LEO—who KNOW we can do better.

Knowing we can do better, however, is a purgatory of mediocrity if the next obvious question isn’t “why don’t we?” And at the risk of massively oversimplifying a layered, nuanced subject like homelessness—and poverty for that matter—I think it’s just too overwhelming.

Like so many of life’s big problems, it often feels insurmountable. Yet at the same time, an urgently necessary priority to pursue—today and tomorrow. And what do we do in between these two truths, in the face of this tension? This is where the wisest among us tell us to “just” do the next right thing.

The next thing is usually digestible. We aren’t righting all wrongs in one fell swoop. Sometimes the next right thing means narrowing in and focusing on something we can get our arms around: something measured. We grab a glass of water, we call someone who can help, we continue on in the face of adversity, we say a prayer, we don’t take no for an answer.

Like so many of life’s big problems, it often feels insurmountable. Yet at the same time, an urgently necessary priority to pursue— today and tomorrow.

Today, we’ll look at one example of what the next right thing has looked like in practice for LEO and their partners.

The scene is 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. LEO had just wrapped up a study with Catholic Charities Chicago that tracked individuals who were experiencing an immediate housing crisis and reached out to a homelessness prevention call center. The center connected callers with organizations able to provide emergency financial assistance. The results suggested that for callers seeking rental assistance with incomes at or below 90% of the federal poverty line, calling when funds were available reduced the likelihood of entering a shelter within 6 months by 88%.

The total amount of assistance was modest, equivalent to roughly one or two months of rent for the average recipient, but the dividends were phenomenal. This was LEO’s first set of hard proof that targeted homelessness prevention held promise. So, what was the next right step? Keep going.

Fast forward to 2017, when LEO researchers began talking with Santa Clara County in California, home to one of the largest public-private partnerships focused on homelessness in the nation, to work on targeted prevention. It was there that LEO researchers David Phillips and Jim Sullivan connected with Jennifer Loving, CEO of Destination: Home. Destination: Home is a powerhouse in Santa Clara County. It’s convened one of the country’s most robust homelessness prevention networks, with over 19 partner agencies working together.

At the heart of Silicon Valley, Santa Clara County is one of the most affluent counties in the United States. It is known for having some of the highest average rent prices in America. The average 2-bedroom apartment costs $2,900/month, yet hourly average wages range between $17 and $18 an hour, not the $65/hour required for median rent. Santa Clara County has the fourth largest population of people experiencing homelessness in the country, behind New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

“Over half of everybody we serve has rent that exceeds their monthly income,” says Jen. She calls this problem “stupid suffering,” a result of a no-win systemic failure that handicaps people. Her team gathered data, reporting that 66% of their clients reported that unaffordable rent was their main obstacle to securing housing, and 42% said that rental assistance would have prevented them from falling into homelessness in the first place.

The Destination: Home team, already versed in research internally, notes that the timing of their meeting LEO, coupled with the county’s generous data sharing, made for the basis of a good partner study.

“I’ve worked with other researchers, and most don’t have much flexibility. But LEO is always willing to figure out how to find a path forward, even when it’s hard, including making changes mid-study. LEO understands that research is essential, but it cannot drive the whole car of social services. They balance integrity to the data with understanding and teamwork on making things happen seamlessly for the providers.”

For David, “working with Destination: Home was incredible. With access to so many unique partner agencies, I cannot say enough about the symbiotic relationship of working with intelligent and driven partners who really want to know the true outcomes of their work.”

David explains that the study with Destination: Home was built as a result of the Chicago study, which first showed legitimacy in using targeted emergency financial assistance. While Chicago had required people participating to show that the crisis was temporary (ex: while they cannot pay rent this month, they can next month), the real question with Santa Clara was how to solve for the group who cannot pay rent now and don’t know when they can.

The question all parties wanted to understand was: Does rapidly providing temporary rental assistance for single adults experiencing homelessness improve their housing stability and quality of life?

LEO and Destination: Home came together to perform a randomized control trial studying the effects on those who were offered cash assistance immediately vs. those who were not.

The study evaluated individuals and families at imminent risk of becoming homeless between July 2019 and December 2020. A randomly-selected subset of individuals were offered emergency financial assistance as well as services such as credit counseling and landlord dispute resolution. The control group only received non-financial services. During the study, the average household received about $2,000 to pay rent, utilities, and other housing-related expenses. The results were strikingly similar to those in Chicago.

What LEO found is that people offered emergency financial assistance were 81 percent less likely to become homeless within six months of enrollment and 73 percent less likely within 12 months. This means that by providing financial assistance to those at imminent risk of homelessness, organizations are not just delaying homelessness from happening; they are also decreasing the chance of a recipient needing to ever enter a shelter.

When asked what they would do next with this information, Jen shares, “We have been collecting our own data in a culture of research for years, but to have this third-party validation provides visibility and validity that can serve to change the face of poverty well into the future. We’re not interested in being a nonprofit that runs programs; we’re interested in contributing to the field and sector to make things better. We wouldn’t responsibly run this without an external evaluation. We want to know if our hypotheses are true. If not, we shouldn’t do it. If it is true, we should do more. This is how we help more people avoid or exit homelessness.”

Destination: Home’s next step? Taking these learnings and using them to normalize giving cash to people as a successful way to solve a problem. They want to grow on that and find other ways cash aid is making a difference. The organization already has a guaranteed income pilot for families at-risk of or currently experiencing homelessness underway, and others forthcoming for folks leaving incarceration and burdened seniors later this year.

“Some days are harder than others, filled with frustrations, data sharing restrictions, or complexities. Other days, the data so clearly links the efficacy of poverty solutions that it creates a spectacular roadmap for organizations and policymakers around the country.”

As for LEO, the next right thing brings us to today. Knowing that access to emergency financial assistance has so far proven effective in two other studies, LEO now has an active study with Mary’s Place, one of the largest emergency providers for those experiencing homelessness in Seattle, Washington. This time, the question is: what does the impact of receiving financial assistance with a higher cap and the opportunity to return for aid have on outcomes such as housing stability, employment, income, benefit utilization, and child well-being?

“Mary’s Place explicitly built the program they are running now based on information gleaned from Santa Clara County’s success,” says David. It’s a cool example of how these ideas domino through other communities and become the next steps for more than just one organization.”

For families who need more than one-time support, Mary’s Place will work with them to create a housing stability plan that uses specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound (SMART) goals and can assist with multiple months of financial assistance as needed. This model is different from the majority of current prevention programs in Seattle, which are almost exclusively one-time, capped assistance.

“This study is about wondering if you could make this aid more effective by finding the most at-risk but still housed individuals? And how big of a financial commitment do you need to make? Is it one time, or do people need a chance to come back in order to keep homelessness at bay?” David asks.

David tells me what’s next on the research side: doing more, faster. Every day, LEO faces a looming problem that a lot of people wouldn’t even start to tackle. Each study answers some vital questions; each study asks new ones. Some days are harder than others, filled with frustrations, data sharing restrictions, or complexities. Other days, the data so clearly links the efficacy of poverty solutions that it creates a spectacular roadmap for organizations and policymakers around the country.

When faced with problems this size, it is essential work for organizations like LEO and their partners to not look away, but instead meaningfully respond by conducting rigorous research and following the evidence. And yes, it is overwhelming. But knowing just one thing that works or doesn’t work opens the door to the next necessary right thing. As LEO sees it, people are worthy of our best efforts and inaction is in itself action. So, even more than doing the next right thing according to the evidence, they’re driven by a deeply rooted belief of simply doing what’s right. 


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