Diversion has become a critical part of our conversations on how to end homelessness. But what do we really mean when we talk about diversion? It seems that when we start talking about how to implement diversion as part of a best practice crisis response system to end homelessness, everyone has a different idea of what it means.
To make sure we are effectively using diversion as a best practice to meet the objective of reducing the number of people who become homeless, let’s start with what the word “diversion” means. According to the Cambridge American Dictionary, "diversion" is defined as “the act of causing something or someone to turn in a different direction.” We do this by assisting households to find an alternative to shelter. Diversion should not be thought of as a “program,” but rather as an “approach” to finding those creative alternatives.
Recently, I had the opportunity to plan a workshop for our national conference on diversion. It was titled “Diversion: Best Practice for Preventing Homelessness.” While planning that session, I spoke with a number of communities that are creatively implementing the diversion approach as part of their coordinated assessment.
While each of the communities' approaches had its own nuances, three common themes emerged, which I like to think of as the “Three C’s of Diversion.”
1. Commitment – Communities need to commit to the diversion approach. Even when there is capacity in the shelter system, diversion prevents households from the stress associated with shelter stays. The communities that are seeing significant results from diversion strategies are communities that recognize a majority of households presenting for shelter are not literally homeless, but in many cases staying with family or friends. These communities recognize that such households can be better served by not entering the shelter system.
2. Conversation – Successful diversion uses the first conversation with a household as an opportunity to explore their current housing crisis, not to ask a list of “diversion questions.” A good problem solving conversation includes exploring any potential resources a household may have to stay where they are currently residing or move to another housing opportunity. In many cases, just having staff engage in a conversation to get to know the household allows for a successful resolution without any financial assistance.
3. Creativity – There is not a single strategy that makes diversion a success. Staff who engage in diversion conversations with households are creative in their solutions, and explore every option to divert households from shelter. This can range from helping someone locate a family member or friend that can help to acting as a mediator in the current housing situation to develop a resolution that can allow the household to stay.
Implementing effective diversion starts at the point of entry when someone is asking for shelter. It embraces the approach that households can be best served by having a creative conversation to assist them in finding another direction that prevents them from entering the shelter system.
Photo "Diversion" by Daniel Lobo.