As community development practitioners, we often wrestle with complexity. There are rarely, if ever, clear-cut answers. For instance, many of us are committed to helping families living in “pockets” of concentrated risk and poverty. But how? Typically, we look to programmatic solutions rooted in habits of practice and noble intentions. Programmatic silos are born and then develop a life of their own.
Through a strategic planning process, Housing Partnership (HP) recognized we must break through our programmatic silos to make a lasting impact with our families facing adversity. We need to find a better way to change the odds.
Enter the “pocket strategy.”
We formed a Design Team and cross-program Pocket Teams to focus on two neighborhoods ripe for change. The teams would use a “design-do” approach - experimenting, collecting data, and learning in real time. They would also meet monthly to reflect on success and failures, highlight lessons learned, and plan next steps.
Our north team focused on the Stonybrook Apartments, a Section 8 project-based property with many young families. The apartments are located in Riviera Beach, listed by Neighborhood Scout as being in the 19th percentile of the country’s most unsafe cities. With a history of violent and drug-related crimes, Stonybrook has also earned a tough reputation in the community.
For years nonprofits and churches have come in and offered prefabricated solutions, none of which yielded lasting, positive results. HPI’s interactions with the complex were mostly via social services responding to child welfare calls for abuse or neglect.
So our starting goal for the pocket team was to reduce child abuse rates by engaging residents, providing financial and parenting workshops, and increasing access to services. Led by Director of Targeted Case Management, Cleveland Wester and Director of Client Outreach Services, Jibby Ciric, the team invested in a “boots on the ground” approach.
“We started with a resident survey,” Wester said. “Knocking on every door. It was a lot of footwork - Jibby in her high heels and me in my tennis shoes.” The residents got to know our staff and began opening up.
However, our next step was a stumble.
Workshops and meetings were poorly attended and frustration started to mount internally and between residents and our team.
What was wrong?
Continuing the conversation, we realized that reducing child abuse rates was our primary objective, not the residents’. Our prefabricated solutions weren’t working.
“Resident feedback indicated safety as their top concern,” said CEO Patrick McNamara. “I heard the residents’ voice the same concern 10 years ago when I was providing direct services. We need to honor their voice and make this our top concern too.”
“Treat this like untying a knot,” McNamara told the team. “What has contributed to the “knot” of unsafe conditions? How has it been tied? What’s the relationship between stakeholders - property management, police, the city, and residents? Can we find a way to help residents “pull the string”?
This prompted us to ask the question: why hasn’t there been any effective response to make the area safer? The police were a regular presence within Stonybrook, and property management had been taken to task, both by police and HUD. So why was this still an issue?
Every stakeholder was involved except the residents.
To create a safer environment, we needed to harness and amplify their voice. We came to see that the solutions to the knot would be driven by the residents who believe in and own them.
As a public subsidy property, residents have the right to form an association. We assisted them in doing so, enabling them to come to the table alongside property management and the police to voice their concerns.
The first meeting had 5 residents; the next had 12. At the last meeting in February 2016, almost 15% of all residents showed up, resulting in positive feedback from police and management.
“Residents have never engaged in this way before.”
Through resident participation, HP created a rich learning experience for our staff, morphing them from therapists, case managers and housing specialists to community builders. Cross-program, indeed!
After several months, police calls from the complex had dropped by a staggering 80%.
This is changing the odds.
Residents began referring themselves for parenting, family counseling, and financial coaching services. 5 more residents are now employed. Child welfare calls are slowly decreasing. And one resident just became a new homeowner.
HP continues assisting residents in building their capacity to run the association, brokering relations with property management and police. A new goal is for the association to be autonomous in the next six months.
Consultant Peter Block wrote, “Problem solving is a means to relatedness.” Once we grasped this, Stonybrook wasn’t a problem to be solved; instead, we joined with residents as problem solvers. We learned that inclusive resident participation is the crux of building safe and sustainable communities.
Another key lesson we learned was how to play “situational social work.” We will always have a game plan and focus on results – now we’ve added the capacity to engage, reflect and adapt.
We remain determined to promote family resilience and decrease child abuse in the area.
“I thought it was going to be easy but it took a lot of relationship and trust building,” Wester said. “People have tried this before and it didn’t work, so they gave up. We didn’t give up. We won’t give up.”