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What is diversion?

How this user-centered approach employs problem-solving, resources, and empowerment to rapidly resolve housing crises.
  |  July 27, 2022

Courtney Horton tells a story about how she was able to help some neighbors simply by purchasing them a specific type of shoes.

As Coordinator of the West Texas Homeless Network, Horton received a call on their general referral line from a woman experiencing a housing crisis. Her husband and their one-year-old baby had their backup housing plan fall through and were living in their car. Horton listened as the woman explained that her family couldn’t go to an emergency shelter since they had a pet. They were panicking and didn’t know where to turn.

During the conversation, the woman commented that she and her husband had been hired by a local Denny’s, but couldn’t work because they didn’t have the required no-slip shoes. Their little savings was being used to keep gas in their car.

So Horton finally asked, “What if someone purchased you the no-slip shoes?” And the woman replied, “Well, we could work.”

With funding set aside to help prevent and divert neighbors from experiencing homelessness, Horton was able to buy the needed shoes, and the couple has since been able to work — and find and sustain housing.

This is an example of the practice of diversion. 

As Horton explained, “Sometimes diversion is just a conversation to help people get to the resolution that they already knew — the solution.” 

The aims of diversion

Diversion is a conflict resolution technique and approach to a housing crisis. It is best suited for people facing imminent homelessness or those who recently began experiencing homelessness, intended to help identify safe and appropriate housing options. Though not a barrier to shelter or waitlists for housing, diversion is designed to assist people in avoiding shelter if possible or return immediately to housing.

Diversion serves as a filter before a person may enter the coordinated entry system, so people aren’t entering the system who don’t need to be there. Diversion is used to prevent episodes of homelessness or ensure they are not long instances of homelessness. 

“A lot of time as providers, we have a firm grasp on what we think the need is, but it needs to come from them and what their need is.”

Courtney horton

“That goes back to our definition of homelessness — if it has to happen, we want it to be rare, brief, and non-recurring,” Horton noted. 

The foundation of diversion is having a conversation, supporting the client as they critically think about their needs and what solutions may already be available to them. When a person is in crisis, they often can only focus on the crisis, which is why someone trained in diversion can help identify appropriate resources. 

Crucially, diversion allows a person to self-determine the solution. When people in the homeless response system are trained in diversion, they learn to empower their neighbor, assisting them in regaining control of their circumstances. 

“You really have to remember that people are resilient. And so we’re not their saviors. They were making it way before you came along,” Horton said. “It’s helping them realize that and empower them to continue with resiliency.”

Services offered should match the needs identified by neighbors to provide appropriate solutions for the situation. Just because someone qualifies for a certain kind of assistance does not mean they necessarily need it. 

“A lot of time as providers, we have a firm grasp on what we think the need is, but it needs to come from them and what their need is,” Horton said. 

The process of diversion

Horton recently helped to train the staff of a church in the town of Abilene, Texas, so they could be better prepared to serve anyone who comes through their door. Abilene is a Built for Zero community that has reached and sustained functional zero for both veteran and chronic homelessness.

“Instead of thinking one solution fits all, you really look at what this person is going through and what this person needs. What resources, what strengths does this person have that we can focus on to find the solution for them?”

PAstor Griffin jones

One aspect of a diversion training program is a role-playing exercise, where one person is given a detailed backstory of a person in a housing crisis but can only share one or two pieces of information. Then, the other person must navigate through a conversation with them, actively listening and asking pointed, thoughtful questions to help them problem-solve.

Griffin Jones, Associate Worship Pastor at Pioneer Drive Baptist Church, recently participated in diversion training alongside the rest of the church’s staff. This particular exercise showed him the importance of asking neighbors complex questions.

“Guiding them without asking leading questions — that gives them the opportunity to really answer and flesh out and process whatever you might be talking about, whether it’s resources, or how they got there, or what next steps there might be,” Jones said.

Sometimes diversion looks like providing direct financial assistance, and other times it is helping to navigate miscommunication through a mediation process with landlords. The conversation is driven by the neighbor’s individual strengths, preferences, and immediate situation.

“A big a-ha moment for me was, if someone comes up to me, going through the checklist of: ‘Ok, do you have a place to stay tonight? Do you have family or friends in the area that can help you? Have you tried these resources?’” Jones said. 

“Instead of thinking one solution fits all, you really look at what this person is going through and what this person needs. What resources, what strengths does this person have that we can focus on to find the solution for them? Because the same thing is not going to work for everyone.”

A role of sustainability and resiliency

A person trained in the practice of diversion needs to know when they can help solve a problem, but also when a person should possibly enter the homeless response system. As Horton pointed out, you don’t want to put a band-aid on a gaping wound. Ultimately, people trained in diversion should look at it as a tool to use in their efforts to support their neighbors in remaining in or obtaining stable housing. 

“I’m not asking for you to be a working social worker. I’m not asking for you to be a Rolodex of resources,” Horton explains to diversion training participants. “I’m asking you to listen — actively listen — work with someone, have a conversation to help them problem-solve, because it goes back to that empowerment. It’s not going to stick unless it’s their choice.”

The best solution for someone who has been experiencing chronic homelessness for nine years may be to connect them to the wider network of resources available through the homeless response system. This is because diversion is also about developing a plan for sustainability rather than a one-time, temporary fix. 

“You don’t want to pay someone’s rent who can’t make it next month,” Horton explained. “Why can’t they pay it next month? Are they over budget? Do we need to look at a budget? These are things that you can work with people in a two-hour conversation.”

Supporting efforts toward functional zero

When utilized as a consistent approach, diversion can have a significant, immediate impact on the neighbor in crisis. As Built for Zero System Improvement Advisor Alexzandra Hust explained, appropriate diversion should be viewed as a holistic response to a neighbor’s needs, benefiting them now and in the long run.

“When we explain diversion, we talk about what it means to engage the individual — but also how this person is part of the whole and how we collectively act,” Hust said. “Whenever you’re serving the person in front of you, you’re not just serving that person, but also the community.”

In turn, communities actively practicing these techniques also demonstrate they are equipped with the knowledge, resources, and solutions to make population-level progress toward ending homelessness for all. 

“Prevention and diversion has a lot to do with how a community hits functional zero,” Horton said. “It’s all connected.”