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Homelessness Leadership Summit: Beginning a new community conversation

A small group of concerned individuals met earlier this year to craft the invitation for the first Olympia Leadership Summit on Homelessness. The opening lines of the invitation read: “It’s time to have a different conversation about homelessness in Olympia, one that acknowledges the complex nature of the issues and seeks to build an atmosphere of mutual understanding, learning and innovation. One that helps us work better together as we address these challenges in our community. One that shapes next steps in a powerful way”.

I was one of those concerned individuals who crafted that invitation. Who am I? Well, I’ve been struggling with that very question lately.

Having worked in homeless and affordable housing for government and non-profits for 20 years, I now find myself with a business license and a shingle I’ve hung out that says: “Independent Consultant for Hire”. While I am working on several contracts that deal with homeless and affordable housing, I chose to be a part of convening the Homelessness Summit on my own time, as a community member, a parent, a hopeless Pollyanna and now, as a small business owner.

In clarifying the need and purpose of the summit, this group recognized that our community has a lot to be proud of with respect to our response to the homelessness issue. They understood that we have a strong contingency of leaders and people who care – from business, philanthropy, social service, and faith communities. We have good strategies, good work, and good intentions, yet it seems we’re often at odds, spinning our wheels or lost in the messiness of the issue.

During the day and a half long summit in May, over 40 people representing service providers, law enforcement, downtown business owners, developers, elected officials, funders and individuals formerly experiencing homelessness engaged deeply around the question: “How can our community respond to the homelessness issue in a healthy, compassionate way that will transform the status quo and lead to wise actions?”

On the first half day, using the World Café process, small groups met around tables focused on the following questions:

What’s happening in our community around the issue of homelessness that captures your attention and where are the spaces of greatest possibility or innovation?

What’s going on that’s important (the key insights) and especially focusing on the places of possibility? What’s important in the background?

Where do we as a community get stuck and need a different kind of leadership or innovation?

On the second, full day of the summit, participants identified principles of how they wanted to work together that day and going forward. These were edited into principles that could be read at the start of future meetings.

Next the group learned about a model called the Cynefin Framework which is helpful in clarifying the difference between simple, complicated, complex and chaotic challenges and offers new approaches to communication, leadership, decision-making, and policy-making in complex social environments such as the homelessness issue. The group wrote on large index cards what is working now and what is needed around the issue of homelessness and placed them in the quadrant that best represented whether the item was simple, complicated, complex or chaotic.

One of the final activities of the Summit was called “Open Space,” where those who wanted to host a small group discussion on a topic of their choosing could do so and others were free to join or table-hop as they liked. Eight topics were chosen to be explored, discussions took place and notes were taken. Over the course of the next eight months, I will share with you the eight topics that arose from this day and a half summit, this first community conversation of this kind around the concern of homelessness in the Olympia area.

The Olympia Homelessness Summit was meant to be a convening of leaders, but it was also meant to be the start of a longer community conversation. This series of articles for Works In Progress is a way of sharing this information with the broader Olympia community to inform you, to inspire you and to generate energy around the problem of homelessness that is positive, solution-oriented and community-driven. I will try to provide information that lets the reader know how to get involved. For starters, please visit the Facebook page Homelessness Leadership Circle of Olympia, which is dedicated to continuing this important conversation. Thank you for reading and please stay tuned…

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