Strategies for improving the quality of care for the homeless

Students at Austin Center for Design have spent the last eight weeks working to better understand the systemic view of homelessness in Austin – a problem that’s visibly present to those of us who work and live downtown, and a problem that seems to be intractable. Our students have worked with stakeholders at Austin Resource Center for the Homeless to understand some of the issues they face, and they’ve immersed themselves in the culture of homelessness in order to better empathize with those affected. On Saturday, December 18th, the students presented their work-in-progress (primarily design research and synthesis) to the Director of Development and Communications at Frontsteps, Mitchell Gibbs, and to Dawn Perkins, the Community Relations and Volunteer Coordinator. The response was excellent – Mitchell described that the students had effectively shifted his perspective on the topic, and had opened his eye to a new way of understanding. Students will continue to work through design over the next sixteen weeks, with the intention of creating working software, service, and product solutions to help mitigate the issues they’ve uncovered.

Students have spent time sleeping on the street, volunteering at the computer lab, volunteering at soup kitchens as well as conducting interviews. Many of the interviews involved participatory activities as well as questions and answers. Students have met with case managers, organizing staff at Front Steps and other organizations, individuals on the street, clients of the organizations, and funding directors to gain understanding of the complexity of the issue.

Below is a brief summary of the students’ findings; you can read more in the attached documents (see below).


Our research changed our perception of homelessness. The project became about the individuals we spoke to and their stories. Through our conversations we realized that society’s perception of homelessness is wrong. The perception of many is formed by the image of the “man on the street with a sign and a cup”, but that describes a very small portion of the population. In fact, many of the homeless – the “clients” – are women and children or adults that recently lost their jobs. Our research uncovered other perception issues surrounding organizations addressing homelessness; we’ve separated these into four categories. While these are specific recommendations for ARCH, there are obviously generalities that can be applied by other organizations, in other cities, that are focusing on the same topic and dealing with many of the same issues.

1. Treat donors like advocates. Currently, the majority of the funding for Front Steps is from the city of Austin. This funding is restricted, dependent on the political climate, and often attached to specific programming. Nearly all grants, in fact, are attached to specific projects, and nearly all forcibly reject funding for administrative tasks and activities. Encouraging individual donors will help diversify funding for Front Steps in the future, and will allow for a more fluid use of funds as appropriate within the organization. To shift towards a more individual-focus for donations, it’s critical to treat donors like advocates, and to arrive at this, the following strategies can be used.

  • Share the stories of your clients with the community. Provide opportunities for individuals to connect to the people rather than the problem. There are a number of vivid and impressive success stories that occur at ARCH and through the various case management activities, but these successes are often lost in the larger view of the “intractable problem.” Celebrate the successes, and share them proactively.
  • Develop internal programs to educate staff and the board about funding, with a specific emphasis on empathy and relationship. Help them understand it is not about asking for money. Track supporters first, donors second, and provide opportunities for your donors to share their stories and become advocates.

2. Make space for planning. Embrace the constraint of a limited staff, and give yourself the runway to take a broader view of the work you are doing. Instead of reacting to your clients’ most urgent needs in the heat of the moment, anticipate and proactively plan to help them meet their more important and long-term goals. By taking time to reflect, you’ll be able to build on what is already working. Creating breathing space for your staff to get out of crisis mode will shift the tone of your organization. Make time to plan like an architect. Build blueprints based around your mission and your client experiences. Become proactive, rather than reactive by considering the following tactics:

  • Find space and time in the work week for planning and collaboration among staff members. Design opportunities for staff to share success and frustrations with each other in order to improve the overall approach.
  • Dedicate team members or specific times for “fire fighting,” so not all staff members have to man the front lines every day.
  • Plan for common client challenges. Design strategies to address client needs before challenges turn into crises, and before clients have to ask for a solution. Create a culture of action, where individuals are empowered to try things that may be outside of the confines of a specific set of policies or procedures .

3. Support understanding through rigorous data collection. Clients want to be understood. Collecting data can be challenging, but it is an important part of providing great service, as the more data and understanding you have about your clients the easier it is to develop appropriate programs (not to mention fund them!) Standardizing procedures for data collection and focusing on the clients will improve Front Steps’ overall understanding of the clients.

  • Standardize procedures and implement consistency in your communication amongst the staff and to the clients. This will help make the procedures easier to understand.
  • Collect the client information in a tiered fashion, thereby breaking the data gathering into chunks. Expedite registration by providing access to registration forms online and printed forms at ARCH that can be filled out before they meet with staff.
  • Develop systems that facilitate easy sharing of data between agencies. Link the IDs clients are using between the agencies, so they do not have to repeat the in-take process.

4. Empower clients to help one another. Clients have a lot to offer and want to help. Providing opportunities that incorporate fun and collaboration will give them new opportunities to explore and discover their strengths. Focusing on strengths and building their confidence will improve their self-perception. Clients are your biggest advocates; think about how you can create an environment that unlocks clients’ skills and their potential by trying the following tactics:

  • Design programs that focus on the clients’ skills and passions in addition to their needs.
  • Create opportunities for the clients to collaborate and help others based on their skills and knowledge.
  • Design opportunities that incorporate the ideals of play and fun for the clients to explore new interests in a safe environment and build social skills.

Download more information

You can download the final report provided to ARCH, and a series of printable posters with these main ideas, below: