The Medicine Hat Community Housing Society has partnered with HelpSeeker, a software developer with extensive experience in the social-service field, to explore and implement new ways to align Medicine Hat’s services with the real needs of its homeless and at-risk population.
3 Key Goals
Explore new ways to improve the experience of those accessing Medicine Hat’s housing and other social services.
Incorporate better system design features and make better use of technology.
Determine how to encourage service providers and other stakeholders to buy in.
Project scope and expected outcomes
“When service providers have to turn away people who don’t meet their criteria, it’s really the programs that don’t fit the people,” says Jaime Rogers, Manager of the Homeless & Housing Development Department of the Medicine Hat Community Housing Society (MHCHS). Jaime is describing a pervasive problem in the social-service community: well intentioned people trying to help, but without a clear idea of actual needs. While this can be frustrating for individual service providers, to their clients it appears as a bewildering array of closed doors and dead-end streets.
The Medicine Hat Community Housing Society has partnered with HelpSeeker, a software developer with extensive experience in the social-service field, to explore and implement new ways to align Medicine Hat’s services with the real needs of its homeless and at-risk population. This holistic approach would address not only housing-related services, but also food security, employment, transportation, and corrections – all of which affect the risk of becoming homeless.
Improving service and efficiency depends on understanding real needs
Medicine Hat, a city of about 63,000 in southwestern Alberta, has done much to curb homelessness over the past dozen years. With an aggressive Housing First approach, the city housed about 1,200 people and cut shelter use by half, according to the 2019 MHCHS progress update [PDF, 9 MB]. Still, an Alberta winter on the streets is a tough prospect for anyone – and simply providing shelter is not going to solve everyone’s problems.
Jaime says that the focus had to shift toward the disconnect between services and needs. “As a funder, Medicine Hat Community Housing Society tends to fund programs that aim to meet outcomes, but what we were offering was not what people wanted.” She points to year-long programs that clients needed only part of. “Why not just offer the service elements?” she asks. “If I go to get a bandage changed at a hospital, they don’t force me to see a cardiologist too. These resources could be better used elsewhere.”
Likewise, people weren’t necessarily using the services as they were expected to, says Dr. Alina Turner, Co-Founder of HelpSeeker: “Only about 20% of homeless youth are using youth shelter services – they’re actually showing up in the adult system.” So, trying to learn about youth needs through the youth services would miss most of the clients.
Part of the issue was the tendency of service providers to look at things through the lens of the solutions they offer. A man in a precarious job situation might need winter tires so that he can get to work and not lose another job, and consequently his housing. Or a mother might not be able to get to work on time after dropping her daughter off at a school bus stop – and might need nothing more than taxi vouchers to address a problem that could amount to homelessness. But service providers that specialize in homelessness or joblessness might rush in to help in those areas when a much simpler and cheaper solution is at hand. “If it’s a transportation issue, don’t make it a homelessness issue,” adds Jaime.
The Solutions Lab
The pressure to re-examine the what and how of the city’s service offerings gave rise to the Medicine Hat Systems Transformation Project: a way to re-examine how clients and service providers work together, with the aim of building a software interface that would make navigating the social-service system easier – both for those who are homeless, but also for people who need services such as food and transportation to avoid becoming homeless.
In 2019, the Housing Society and HelpSeeker applied for and received $97,800 from the National Housing Strategy’s Solutions Labs program. Administered by CMHC, the program helps organizations explore new ways to solve complex housing problems. They also received $45,000 from Employment and Social Development Canada’s Reaching Home strategy.
Getting community input
The project began with an innovation forum on July 17, 2020. This was a way of getting partners from across the social-service sector engaged, and to establish themes for the labs themselves. Together, the participants were called the Systems Innovators Group. Diversity of experience was essential, says Jaime. “This includes schools, youth services, a women’s shelter, people with lived experience, and the City too. The participants were not necessarily heads of organizations, but selected for their leadership, understanding, and desire to change systems.” She stresses that the spirit of connecting to clients’ needs meant that they were participants at every step of the way. “It’s just how we operate. Always go to the experts first, and they’re the ones who are experts in their own lives,” says Jaime.
From the innovation forum emerged several themes, such as the need for a technological one-stop shop, but one that gives end-users a choice – not only between traditional and technological tools, but also in what services they need to access, and what information about themselves they choose to share. Another theme was that one’s access to the system should be based on needs, rather than on which service you first encounter, or who you know.
With the basic themes established, the Systems Innovators Group hosted 3 design labs, focusing on how to improve the client experience, design features of the system and technology, and how to encourage service providers and other stakeholders to buy in.
The community and client involvement moved the discussion in unexpected ways. “We usually know where a project will go when we start it. This one was not like that,” says Jaime. Alina concurs: “We were looking for a single digital solution – creating a digital identity, customer relationship management, a service menu. But people were telling us that we had to do all of those things.” Though this would complicate the design process, the forums were getting closer to understanding the gaps in the system.
Expressing transformation digitally
Once complete, the platform being proposed will enable clients to browse the system’s diverse service offerings to find exactly what they need. But this will be far more than a menu of services: it will allow clients to connect to services that meet needs that they express, and even to receive services digitally. This puts the client in control of his or her own story – literally, as each client will have a unique profile and can choose what information to share. So, they will not have to tell their stories repeatedly at every stage, which many people find tiring or even traumatic.
The solution will also benefit service providers, who presently spend much of their time either qualifying clients for their services or trying to find better fits elsewhere. “Even more than for the end-user, it’ll be my Google for the social world,” says Jaime. Likewise, those who call on behalf of a distressed family member, colleague, or friend will have access to the whole system at their fingertips – as will anyone aiming to help a person who is not adept with technology. Advanced accessibility features, along with the availability of the app on computers in service providers’ premises, will help more people adopt the technology.
Despite the usefulness of the digital solution, it is the systems behind it that are really being transformed: better communication among service providers, who often don’t know what else is being offered in the city; and giving the client control of what he or she needs. “If you want services A and D, but you don’t want B and C, that shouldn’t be a reason to be denied services,” says Jaime. This, she says, puts the responsibility on service providers and their funders to make sure that the services reflect the needs, not the other way around.
New service providers in Medicine Hat can be added at any time, expanding the network and increasing its value to clients and other service providers alike. But the expansion does not stop in the city. MHCHS and HelpSeeker continue to reach out within Medicine Hat and beyond – giving presentations across the province and producing a YouTube video. Other communities have taken notice, says Jaime: “People from all over the province, and even Ottawa, have been attending our community forums.”
As of December 2020, MHCHS and HelpSeeker are developing a business case for building and implementing the solution package. The aim is to secure about $5 million from the private sector to create the technologies and implement it in Medicine Hat, as a springboard for national rollout in 2021. Alina says that this will easily pay for itself over time. “About $290 billion is spent on social services per year, and there is a great need for transformation and digital adoption in the sector,” she says. “Even in Medicine Hat, there are more than 1000 services. You can’t hold that in your head, or be systematic about it.”
Having more services and more clients connected to the platform will not just help them, but also create better data to inform evidence-based decisions – service providers can use it to identify duplications or gaps in services, learn about trends in service use, gather feedback, and find out about sources of funding. And they can do it in real time, making the whole system more responsive to real needs.
Project Team: Medicine Hat Community Housing Society
Location: Medicine Hat, Alberta
Project Collaborator: Helpseeker
Get More Information:
Visit the website for the Medicine Hat Systems Transformation Project or contact email@example.com.