Airport Delays, Coordinated Access, and System Improvement

Traveling across the country from Richmond, Virginia to Oakland, California is always a process. Before I would get to my final destination, the National Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness, I would need to arrive at the airport at 4:30 a.m., make two connecting flights in Atlanta and then Phoenix, and then finally land in Oakland around 3:30 p.m. PST. By the time I got to Phoenix awaiting my last connecting flight at 2:00 p.m. MST, I was hungry, exhausted, and ready to get on with my day.

Airports are access points in a system where individuals move from point A to point B. As I awaited my flight, I thought about how this is similar to individuals and families accessing a homeless services crisis response system looking to move from homelessness to safe and stable permanent housing. Standardized processes are utilized to facilitate these motions, and both systems depend on the availability and coordination of resources and staff to achieve their goals. To get passengers from Phoenix to Oakland, we needed a functional plane and a prepared flight crew. To return individuals and families from shelter to permanent housing, we need affordable and adequate housing to be available and quality case managers to facilitate the process.

The boarding process begins so I gate-check my luggage and find my seat on the plane. While waiting for take-off, I begin reviewing slides for a presentation I’ll be giving on building support for rapid rehousing programs in communities. Before we can get off the ground, however, we are notified that the plane has a mechanical issue and that all passengers would need to deplane, reclaim their luggage, and head to a new gate for an alternate plane. While this initial flight was scheduled for 2:00 p.m., it wasn’t until somewhere between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. that we repeat the somewhat tedious process of boarding and getting settled on the plane. As luck would have it, however, we experience déjà vu and another mechanical issue again forces us to deplane.

From the first delay onward, gate attendants remained hopeful that we should have no problem getting to Oakland by Wednesday evening. This gave us hope, and with faith in the process we continued to wait instead of exploring other options to get to our desired destination. We do this all the time in homeless services. We too often shuffle clients around with false hope that the next agency will be able to help, or by coming back the next day that a needed resource will become available. Unlike air travel, however, homelessness is a crisis situation with much on the line. We need to do more than promote false hope. Our clients need more than hope, they need creative solutions to effectively and efficiently end their homelessness.

Around 8:30 p.m., a good 18 hours into my travel day, a new plane finally became available. An oversight in planning again prevented us from take-off, as the assigned flight crew had timed out by this point and were no longer cleared for flying. They had put in too many hours that day, and in the absence of an alternative crew, we were told we would not be flying to Oakland until the morning. This could have been anticipated, and new means to get to Oakland by Wednesday evening could have been explored, but neither happened and instead we were left weary and stranded.

While hope is important to our work, we need to be realistic about resources, timelines, and options. By focusing on just one path to housing stability, our clients too often get stuck. This is unacceptable. Instead of leaving our most vulnerable neighbors in limbo, we need to be flexible, think outside the box, and be realistic about available options. In my case, there had been a 9:00 p.m. flight out of Phoenix that we probably could have transferred to, but it was never presented as an option. We were given false hope, and by the time we realized this, it was too late to take advantage of alternatives. While initially the 9:00 p.m. flight did not appear to be the best option, it ended up being a viable solution that was left unexplored.

Our work ending homelessness is too important and urgent to leave our neighbors in limbo. To better serve our neighbors, here are some lessons from my experience at the Phoenix airport:

  1. All of the necessary parts have to work together as a system. Just as it doesn’t help to have a plane without a pilot, our neighbors experiencing homelessness need emergency services to coordinate with permanent housing resources so that we can effectively move individuals and families through our system. Nobody should get stuck in a short-term crisis intervention. Permanent housing is the destination, and our system needs every part to move toward this end.
  2. Staff need to be knowledgeable and responsive to the varying needs of clients. Though a number of gate agents were present and hard at work, they were not ultimately very helpful. Airport staff were not proficient in shifting passengers to other planes, or knowledgeable to answer questions about luggage. In order to best assist households experiencing homelessness, homeless services staff need to be aware how each part and process within our homeless services system fits together.
  3. It is important to stay focused on the end goal, but to be flexible about the means for achieving this goal. Gate staff were so focused on getting us onto our delayed flight that they failed to think of other means to get us to our end destination. In many communities, homeless services providers still think about how to fit households into specific programs rather than how to best end that household’s homelessness.
  4. Be realistic about options. One of the more frustrating aspects of my experience was airline staff telling me what they thought I wanted to hear. Instead of being realistic about the situation and available means to get to Oakland, they presented me with false hope. In homeless services, we work with clients who have been failed by many other systems and have gone through a lot of hardship. They deserve the dignity of honest conversation surrounding a realistic range of options. Though resources are limited and big issues continue to pose challenges (affordable housing, income, child care, etc.), we must not wait in limbo but instead creatively utilize available resources to overcome these constraints.

If we are serious about ending homelessness, we need to embrace diversion, help people move through the system faster, and be smart and creative with our interventions. Coordinated access aims to address many of these issues, and I am excited that my community has been having ongoing conversations about what coordinated entry could mean and what it could look like in Greater Richmond.

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