RADIANCE BLOG

Category: Human Services

The Challenging Landscape of Public Education

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

While Denver Public Schools has managed to limit its first teacher strike in 25 years to three days, the reality that it had to come to that is an indicator of a fact that has become common knowledge around the country: public education is hard.  While most agree that teachers are chronically underpaid in many areas of the country, few agree on what can be done about it.  In Colorado, there is an unending debate about how to pay for education, roads, and healthcare, and most of the ballot initiatives aimed at raising taxes to support these priorities fail.  While we at Corona won’t be solving all these problems in this blog, we wanted to highlight a few of our clients who have made moves to improve the educational landscape in recent years.

  • The Big Idea Project is a nonprofit organization started by a teacher who felt that high school students need to learn not only how to solve problems in the world but how to become leaders who can really make a difference in their communities. The project asks teams of high school students to partner with a mentor from the business community to identify a problem they see in their community and to take action to help solve it.  The program is in place at many high schools in the Denver area, allowing hundreds of students each year to learn not from a book, but from getting out in the world and trying to improve it.  As great as the program sounds in principle, it is always important to evaluate whether a program is resulting in the desired impact.  To that end, Corona has helped the Big Idea Project to understand the program’s impact over the years through a thorough evaluation of the changes it makes in student participants’ abilities.
  • The Logan School for Creative Learningis a private school that focuses on allowing high-performing students to be at the center of their own education.  The program allows students to pick topics that interest them each school year and builds their entire curriculum around those interests.  There are very few closed-ended questions at Logan.  Instead, the program helps to create students who can think creatively and solve problems by using their own knowledge and skills.  True to this philosophy, Logan asked Corona to assist in helping to understand how the school can tell its story in a way that the broader public will value and understand.
  • DSST Public Schools is a charter school network built on one of Corona’s own core philosophies: they use data extensively to help make decisions.  Originally built with science and technology at the core of their approach, DSST has been very successful at achieving high student performance and college placement, which has helped them become one of the largest charter school networks in the state.  True to its philosophy of data-driven decision-making, DSST has looked to Corona for assistance in helping to understand how people feel about charter schools in general, and DSST specifically, in its efforts to ensure it is meeting the needs of families in the region.

These three organizations have dramatically different approaches to improving student outcomes, and all of them may work for some types of students and not work for others.  In many ways, these organizations’ approaches are a microcosm of some of the broad debates about strategies in education these days.  Will 4-day school weeks, all-day kindergarten, or performance-based pay solve issues of student performance and teacher retention?  Unfortunately, we don’t know.  But if your organization needs help in coming up with a plan to try some new things out, figure out what works, and understand how to communicate the impact you are making to your stakeholders, we’re here to help.


Communities Seek Creative Solutions to the Country’s Housing Affordability Crisis

While working on a recent project assessing the housing market for the City of Fort Collins, we were struck by how communities across the state and the country were pursuing diverse strategies to the current housing affordability crisis. The fourth quarter of 2018 saw national home affordability drop to a 10-year low. Residents in our hometown of Denver are all too familiar with this dynamic. A recent report identified the city as hosting the most competitive housing market in the nation. Members of the country’s middle class are increasingly viewing home ownership as unfeasible. The vast majority of Americans find themselves in markets where home prices are rising faster than wages. It should not be surprising that renting is more affordable than owning in 59% of the nation’s counties. That number jumps to 93% of the country’s most populated areas (those with more than 1 million people).

Photo by Breno Assis on Unsplash

Nonetheless, the rental market is not much more forgiving. Nationwide, median rent has increased by 11% over the last five years. Half of all renters find themselves spending more than 30% of their income on rent and one quarter of renters spend more than 50% of their income on rent. While the housing market has demonstrated an impressive recovery from the great recession, construction has been focused on the high and low ends of the market. Meanwhile, those in the middle are becoming accustomed to tight markets with few options.

The breadth and depth of the affordability crisis has brought creative responses from communities across the country. Denver has attempted to address affordability with the creation of the Affordable Housing Revolving Loan Fund. The initial $10 million effort to support the development and creation of multifamily rentals for low income individuals that has since been expanded. In a similar effort, Portland Oregon’s Inclusionary Housing Zoning Code Project requires that all new development projects above 20 units have housing available to individuals of different income levels.

Many believe the solution to affordability lies in zoning. Last month, the Minneapolis City Council took a bold step and became the first major metro area in the country to eliminate single-family zoning. With plenty of resistance from home owners in these areas, Minneapolis is on the path to significantly increasing housing supply, reducing travel times, and even potentially rectifying a history of racial segregation. Regardless of potential larger downstream effects, adding triplexes and apartment buildings to these neighborhoods is likely to mitigate high rents and housing costs by allowing more choice in the market and providing many with the ability to downsize while remaining close to desired amenities.

Photo by Alex Block on Unsplash

A less drastic, but more widely pursued, strategy has been the expansion of “mother-in-law apartments” or “granny flats”. These units, formally called accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are separate entry add-ons to single-family home properties averaging around 850 square feet.  ADUs offer a potential respite from high costs for both owners and renters. The former can get help with their mortgage and the latter can find a smaller housing option near work, public transit, or other desired amenities. Owners can also rent these units on short-term sites like Airbnb or VRBO between long-term renters or if they desire greater flexibility. While zoning laws have traditionally been a barrier to these kinds of rental options, that is starting to change. Los Angeles has set a goal of having 10,000 new ADU units by 2021 and increased the number of issued permits from 142 in 2016 to 2,000 in 2017. In Utah, proposed legislation SB34 hopes to allow for more ADU apartments and to encourage high-density housing near transit corridors. The crisis has even spurred some innovative private sector efforts toward affordability. Google, Facebook, and Apple have all made headlines by investing tens of millions of dollars into housing for their employees. Similarly, Microsoft just announced $500 million to support affordable housing in the Seattle area. This project includes around half of that sum to be put toward below-market-rate loans so that developers can target construction in the surrounding area. In addition to this direct attempt to shape affordability, Microsoft has also been active in lobbying nearby mayors to consider changing zoning laws to waive fees and allow for greater density, especially around public transit. While none of these efforts are going to be a panacea, we need to collect as much data as possible to evaluate if and how these programs mitigate the rising costs of housing. Any undertaking to solve this problem on a local level needs to start with a systematic assessment of what has worked elsewhere.


Human Services Blog Series Recap

As September winds down, we’re wrapping up our quarterly blog series on Human Services here at Corona Insights.  When we got together to plot out this series we had a lot of discussion around themes and patterns that we’ve seen in our work with human services organizations as we’re providing evaluation, research, and strategic consulting. The three themes that felt the most compelling and drove our writing for this quarter were these:

We’ve really enjoyed taking a step back to think about common themes among all our human service projects. We hope you have too.

To stay on top of everything we cover, sign up for our quarterly newsletter, The Corona Observer.

Be sure to stay tuned to the Radiance Blog next quarter for our next blog series topic!


Colorado Housing Affordability: Challenges and Solutions

Ensuring that people can access adequate housing has long been a core concern for human service agencies and providers. Stable housing helps people stay healthy, remain connected to the community, and have peace of mind. With the advent of evidence-based approaches, such as Housing First, human service organizations have invested even more resources into this issue.

Yet lately, this topic has become even more urgent throughout Colorado. Increasing housing prices for both renting and buying creates more difficult hurdles. From the Great Plains to the Front Range and on through the Western Slope, communities are experiencing tougher and broader housing challenges. Some of our recent research has helped these communities understand housing challenges to prioritize ways to overcome them.

Challenges

In a recent survey, we found that the affordable housing situation has gotten worse in most of Colorado’s cities and towns over the past three years. A lack of affordable housing has steadily become a more common challenge for communities since 2012, when the economy began to recover after the Great Recession.

A shortage of accessible housing begets other human service issues. Indeed, most communities in Colorado have had a difficult time recruiting and retaining a workforce due to affordable housing challenges, and many communities have seen local worker commute times increase because of a lack of local affordable housing.

Almost all medium and large cities in Colorado have witnessed a rise in people experiencing homelessness over the past three years. Even though that increase is not entirely caused by a lack of affordable housing, an increase in homeless people does frequently affect local law enforcement and parks and recreation departments, demanding more resources. Homelessness effect on police and parks was true regardless of community size or region in the state.

Solutions

Our research has found that many communities are rising to meet the challenges of affordable housing. Most midsized to large communities either currently have a housing affordability plan or intend to create one soon; most also have a plan to address homelessness. However, other potential solutions, such as subsidizing workforce housing or creating a dedicated tax, are uncommon. Maybe these solutions, or other innovative ideas, can help communities address their challenges.

If your community is facing these issues, consider conducting a housing needs assessment. Needs assessments can range from simple analysis of existing demographic data to extensive engagements, including hearing from people who are most affected by housing. If you are interested in learning more about how a needs assessment could help you identify housing needs and gaps in your community, give us a call; we are happy to chat.


Solidarity, Not Charity: An Approach to Dealing with Food Insecurity

In our work, we often encounter non-profits and other human services organizations that are utilizing creative and innovative solutions to problems that affect the community. As noted in previous blogs, human services needs are often interconnected and as such, organizations are increasingly having to expand their scope of work to better serve their communities. A quick review of the Colorado Department of Human Services’ webpage highlights how opioid treatment, SNAP enrollment, childhood wellness, and homelessness weave together to create the complex social challenges of our modern era. Rarely does an individual experience a singular human services need. One organization, Metro Caring, has fearlessly approached the issue of food insecurity in the Denver area, while also activating their community to address other needs of their participants.


Photo by Dana DeVolk on Unsplash.com

We’ve all heard the tropes and clichés about “American” food portions.  In 2018, we are eating more and more, yet as much as 40% of food produced goes to waste. Compared to dinner plates in 1960, today’s dinner plates have increased 36%. Given these known facts, why are more and more people struggling with hunger? In Colorado alone, 1 in 10 Coloradans struggle with hunger–meaning they do not always have enough money to buy food. A local Denver non-profit, Metro Caring, has vowed to help local residents tackle the issue of food insecurity.

Unlike many food service programs, Metro Caring focuses on providing its participants with healthy, nutritious, and fresh food and produce. Historically, emergency food programs have distributed non-perishable food items and participants have not had much, or any, choice in what food they receive. This exacerbates the food waste problem and does not enable people living with food insecurity to have access to healthy food. According to Sisi Dong Brinn, Chief Impact Officer at Metro Caring, access to healthy food options is a human right.

Participants schedule an appointment time at Metro Caring and are able to shop the shelves and refrigerators, selecting their own food items with dignity. The non-profit has also successfully partnered with local grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods to ensure all participants who walk through the doors of Metro Caring can feed themselves and their families with nutritious items.

Metro Caring serves a diverse audience, including immigrants and refugees from as far away as China or the Middle East. As their participant base diversifies, the organization has instituted several programs to ensure the cultural diversity of our Denver community is embraced and shared. Above the grocery market, Metro Caring has a fully operational kitchen. On different days and times, the kitchen is utilized for cooking classes, with participants and volunteers leading cooking classes that highlight different cultural foods. The non-profit has also been able to form partnerships with corporations and local restaurants to create community gardens that supply Metro Caring with specialized produce items such as bok choy, eggplant, and chilis. Highlighting cultural differences in a positive way builds empathy and encourages community-driven connections.

Sisi Dong Brinn used the phrase “solidarity, not charity” to describe the work done at Metro Caring. Many people do not understand that empowering people to exert their own agency over food production and consumption has a more lasting impact than simply providing food. In line with the solidarity, not charity sentiment, Metro Caring offers a plethora of other human services to participants. In addition to the food services, the non-profit offers courses on financial literacy, citizenship test resources, a diabetes self-management program, and document services such as identification cards and birth certificates. Metro Caring frequently reaches out to its participants to evaluate and conduct research on which services and programs they would like to see added, augmented, or removed. Through focus groups, formal evaluation, and participant conversations, Metro Caring is consistently looking for ways to better their current and future participants. At times, Metro Caring has taken on an advocacy role. After RTD closed a nearby bus stop, Metro Caring and its participants worked together to petition for the stop to be reopened, ensuring Metro Caring participants have easy access to the organization and public transportation.

One organization cannot solve all the problems facing the Denver metro area. However, the scope of the programs and services offered at Metro Caring highlights how hunger and food insecurity are often interconnected with other systemic issues like affordable housing, employment, poverty, and mental health and well-being. Providing human services through the lens of “solidarity, not charity” ensures greater impact and enables participants to realize their own agency.


There’s No Place Like Home

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

If you have walked through downtown Denver recently, you know that it is hard to miss the growing homeless population. Civic Center Park has become a meeting place for many in the homeless population—a place where they can gather to share stories, food, and cell phones.  Each year, Denver conducts a “Point in Time” (PIT) survey that aims to count the number of people experiencing homelessness. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) conducts an annual Point-in-Time (PIT) survey to track the rate of homelessness across the nation. Individual cities are responsible for collecting the data, with assistance from Local Homeless Coalitions, and provide the data to HUD, as well as publish a local report. In Denver, the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative oversees the PIT survey. The 2018 Denver PIT survey found that 5,317 people are experiencing homelessness in the city and county of Denver, competing for a total of approximately 1,000 emergency shelter beds (MDHI 2018). This number is up from the PIT count of 3,336 homeless persons in 2017.

Over time, the city of Denver has taken various approaches to “solving” the issue of homelessness. In 2003, the Denver Department of Human Services published a report titled “A Blueprint for Addressing Homeless in Denver” which outlined a ten-year action plan aimed at ending “chronic homelessness in Denver that will also address homeless prevention and the enhancement of services for populations with special needs” (Denver Homeless Planning Group 2003: 4). In 2005, Proclamation 53 was signed by then-mayor John Hickenlooper, expressing official support for Denver’s Road Home program—an initiative to secure housing for the city’s homeless population. Despite these, and other, city initiatives the homeless population in Denver continues to grow and housing costs surge past national averages. While the numbers may seem bleak, one Denver non-profit has followed the path laid out by other major cities such as Seattle, WA and Austin, TX and searched for an innovative solution. This solution came in the form of tiny houses.

Tiny homes burst onto the scene in the early 2000s. Small, sometimes mobile, homes with sleek designs offered a minimalist housing solution to people seeking a break from the materiality of the modern world. In Denver, tiny homes are now being used to provide a safe housing solution for some of Denver’s homeless population. Beloved Community Village, located in Denver’s River North (RiNo) district, consists of 11 tiny homes, housing up to 22 people. The self-governing community opened in July 2017, operating as a 180-day pilot project. In January 2018, Beloved Community Village was forced to relocate after their six-month lease with the Urban Land Conservancy expired. Luckily, the community was able to relocate only 200 feet away onto another property owned by the Urban Land Conservancy. Unfortunately, the Urban Land Conservancy and the city of Denver have only officially approved another 180-day lease agreement for the tiny house village, leaving the permanency of Beloved Community Village in question.

According to Beloved Community Village website, the village’s purpose “is to provide a home base and safe place for those who are presently in Denver and have no other place to live. With this collection of secure and insulated homes, we provide a viable solution in the midst of the current housing crisis.” While Beloved Community Village has been successful thus far in living and embodying their purpose, one has to wonder whether the tiny home model can be expanded to accommodate even more homeless residents in the Denver-metro area and throughout the state of Colorado. In May 2018, the organization behind Beloved Community Village, the Colorado Village Collaborative, revealed they are actively working to open another tiny home community at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in downtown Denver. The new village will have eight tiny homes, designated specifically for women and transgender homeless residents.

Affordable housing remains a crucial need in Denver and across the nation, as housing costs continue to rise and wages continue to stagnate. Cities and towns must face this problem head-on and work to understand how and why their communities are affected in order to develop strategies and initiatives to tackle homelessness. Homelessness is only one problem though and does not exist in isolation, thus cities need to ensure they understand the greater context and vulnerabilities unique to their community. The issues involved span everything from zoning laws and development to population growth and migration to mental health and criminal justice services. In 2016 and 2017, Corona Insights conducted a needs assessment for the city of Longmont. The research found that some of the greatest needs facing community residents are the ability to find affordable housing options and in turn, paying for housing. Furthermore, between 2010 and 2014, the availability of rental properties with a monthly rent below $800 decreased by 33%. The completion of the needs assessment and its subsequent report in Longmont equipped the city government with knowledge to better meet the human service needs of their residents.

Homelessness is a pervasive issue in many urban centers and rural areas across the country, with no end in sight. Local governments and non-profit organizations both have roles to play in addressing homelessness. Communities and organizations interested in addressing homelessness may benefit from commissioning a community needs assessment to uncover systemic challenges in their local area, and committing to enact changes informed by the assessment findings.  Armed with information and compassion, we can begin to dismantle the barriers that lead to homelessness. The time is now.


Defining the Vulnerable and At-Risk Populations: Who are We Really Looking At?

A few weeks ago, I was talking with my brother about a needs assessment survey his company is doing. The company wanted to ensure that vulnerable and at-risk populations were accurately represented in the results of this needs assessment survey. However, there was some disagreement over what groups of people were considered vulnerable or at-risk. He felt that LGBTQ individuals should be considered vulnerable or at-risk.  I thought he made an interesting point, so I wanted to see how vulnerable and at-risk populations are typically defined, and if they represent the same or different groups. I chose to look at these definitions through the lens of health.

Vulnerable populations

The World Health Organization defines vulnerable as “… the degree to which a population, individual or organization is unable to anticipate, cope with, resist and recover from the impacts of disasters.” Under this definition, WHO considers the following groups to be vulnerable: children, pregnant women, elderly people, malnourished people, and people who are ill or immunocompromised.

While that provides a great starting point for a definition, I also wanted to find one that is a bit more US-centric, just to cover my bases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that vulnerable populations may include anyone who has difficulty communicating, has difficulty accessing medical care, may need help maintaining independence, requires constant supervision, or may need help accessing transportation.

Cutting across both the WHO definition and the CDC’s outline for vulnerable populations, I found a great, if possibly outdated, article from the American Journal of Managed Care that separates vulnerable populations into three health domains: physical, psychological, and social.

“The health domains of vulnerable populations can be divided into 3 categories: physical, psychological, and social. Those with physical needs include high-risk mothers and infants, the chronically ill and disabled, and persons living with HIV/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. Chronic medical conditions include respiratory diseases, diabetes, hypertension, dyslipidemia, and heart disease.

In the psychological domain, vulnerable populations include those with chronic mental conditions, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, as well as those with a history of alcohol and/or substance abuse and those who are suicidal or prone to homelessness.

In the social realm, vulnerable populations include those living in abusive families, the homeless, immigrants, and refugees.”

At-risk populations

As far as I can tell, the difference between vulnerable populations and at-risk populations is blurry. For example, the US Department of Health and Human Service’s At-Risk, Behavioral Health, and Community Resilience Division provides a definition of at-risk that is very similar to WHO’s definition of vulnerable. They state that at-risk individuals “…are people with access and functional needs that may interfere with their ability to access or receive medical care before, during, or after a disaster or emergency.” Further, they define at-risk individuals as children, older adults, pregnant women, and individuals who may need additional response assistance.

Healthy People 2020 focuses on social determinants of health as a way of identifying people at risk of poorer health outcomes. They group these determinants into five categories: economic stability, education, social and community context, health and health care, and neighborhood and built environment. Anyone facing a more challenging environment may be considered more at risk than another population, but this too requires judgment.

Disparities

A final way to identify a vulnerable or at-risk group is to consider whether there are disparities in the outcome domain, such as health. SAMHSA’s (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) definition of a health disparity is “[A] particular type of health difference that is closely linked with social, economic, and/or environmental disadvantage. Health disparities adversely affect groups of people who have systematically experienced greater obstacles to health based on their racial or ethnic group; religion; socioeconomic status; gender; age; mental health; cognitive, sensory, or physical disability; sexual orientation or gender identity; geographic location; or other characteristics historically linked to discrimination or exclusion.”


Overall, there is a significant gray area when trying to identify a vulnerable population or an at-risk population.  For the purpose of a needs assessment, it is up to the organization conducting the assessment to determine if they also want to consider groups that experience disparities. Ultimately, I would argue that it depends on the goals outlined for the needs assessment itself. Additionally, one should consider the community in which the needs assessment is taking place, as different populations may find themselves to fall under the vulnerable, at-risk or even disparities definitions in different communities.