Performance Institute Highlight: The 3 Ways Data Helps Morningside Shelter Tell Their Story
September 29, 2014
Interview with Josh Davis,
Executive Director of Morningside Shelter in Brattleboro
September 24, 2014
Tell us about the shelter. What’s your mission? Who do you serve?
We are the only year-round homeless shelter in southeastern Vermont. Our mission is to provide safe space and ongoing support to families. Our most known program is our 29-bed shelter. We have individuals, families, and children who stay here, and we have two transitional apartments. We provide case management services while folks are here. We also have programs in housing support case management and as representative payees, but the shelter is the program we focused on in the Performance Institute.
The shelter has been in operation since 1979, but I’ve only been in the role of Executive Director for two years. When I came on we had a relatively large staff turn over, so day-to-day we feel like a very new and fresh organization. It’s an exciting and dynamic place to work.
The Performance Institute with BBVT was your first experience with Results-Based Accountabilty. How did RBA change the program?
It changed how we talked about it. First of all I started looking at the shelter as a program. It sounds base and simple, but I hadn’t been looking at it as a program because it’s big and it’s what we do. It helped to first to stop and say, it’s a program.
What changed about the data you collect?
We started thinking about peoples’ interaction with Morningside in different chunks of time. The first chunk of time is before individuals come into the shelter. We started tracking that information. We learned that over the last year 295 households have been on our waitlist unduplicated. I couldn’t have told you that information a year ago. After I share the number of households on the waitlist, I follow it up with the number of individuals we’ve served – 117. We were only able to serve 117 people. It’s a great way to show the need for our services, as well as the number of people calling and looking for shelter.
The second chunk that we track is the time that individuals are at the shelter. What are those key pieces of data that help to shape our stories? We went AWOL from the Performance Institute and have 83 ways to slice and dice the data. We’re still narrowing it down. The big pieces of data are “number of people served,” “length of stay,” and “did they transition successfully?” It really helps to tell our story. We spent a lot if time thinking about what is a successful transition. It’s not necessarily leaving and getting an apartment. They might move back home but over the course of the time there they did work on themselves and their relationships so when they move back home it’s more stable.
We’re still working on the third chunk of time, the follow-up. This is when people have come through the shelter, gotten support, and are better off. The group that is still housed 90 days after exit. It is kind of a self-selecting group, since we can ask them to leave the shelter if it’s not working out, and they can leave if they want to. If someone leaves the shelter abruptly it can be hard to follow up with them. Ideally, we will follow up with everyone who accesses our services at the 90 day mark to make sure they’re still stable. That would show our impact.
You mentioned that RBA helps with storytelling. You’ve got a great website homepage, and images. Has storytelling always been a part of how you communicate about the shelter?
It’s been a conscious move. We’ve tried to influence the conversation about homelessness in Brattleboro so it becomes more about the people and less about stereotypical images of homelessness. The word homelessness is connoted with a male, alcoholic, sleeping on the street. The reality is that one third of Vermont’s homeless are children. Basically half of the remainder are women, and all told we’re serving a lot of working poor, a lot of people right on the edge who are working really hard.
I feel like it’s our responsibility to tell the story of what we see. Through social media and through our annual report. It’s a platform for us to just play with a little bit. Our first annual report was all about telling individual stories to highlight the programs. We had photos of folks to go with them. We live our lives very rushed, and so often we get our information in sound bites and we think in generalizations. We wanted to mess with that frame, pull people in, and interrupt that framework.
This year we did the game of giving back. We wanted to make it lighthearted and fun, not that poverty and homelessness is in any way a game, but we wanted to give people a reason to get involved with us. We try to create a feeling of being home, being part of a community. We wanted to communicate that, not guilt people into giving with shock and awe. Go back to 2007 you can see how the annual report has evolved. It’s fascinating to look at.