We are measuring the wrong things

I recently learned about concerns regarding the Subway Diversion Program implemented in NYC. This is the idea that NYPD officers can assist street outreach teams in ensuring that homeless people sleeping out in the subway train stations can be diverted to shelter.

Coalition for the Homeless reports that this implementation has resulted in coercion and criminalization of homeless people. They received a letter from anonymous NYPD officer(s) tasked with being part of this program. In the letter it’s written that NYPD officers are tasked to reach a quota of how many street homeless people in the subway stations that they “diverted.” This is reported to mean that police officers intimidate homeless people to go to shelter or receive summons and fines that can ultimately result in their incarceration.

There aren’t enough viable shelters and housing for these people and this initiative is unwittingly punishing the people who have their reasons not to access shelter services. The right to shelter in NYC was originally meant to give everyone in the city the opportunity to have a roof over their head to sleep in when they couldn’t afford to. It was not meant to criminalize and coerce homeless people in this brutal and cruel manner.

This is what happens with data-driven policies when we are measuring the wrong type of data. The quota that NYPD is pressured to fulfill comes from the fact that the city is trying to measure how many street homeless people in the subway stations were “diverted” to shelter, and stressing this measurement as a measure of success and progress. NYPD of course would do whatever it takes to reach high numbers for this and meet their quota. It’s a numbers game. The process looks data-driven and evidence-based but the end result is cruelty and injustice disguised as charitable non-profit work.

We are measuring the wrong things here.

This is true in my work as well. As a social worker in a family shelter, I and my coworkers have strong pressure to report out the numbers of how many biopsychosocial assessments we completed and how many successful referrals we made to clients in a month. Trying to keep these numbers up keeps us busy. But I disagree that this is an effective use of our time and of our talents.

For one, for many families that don’t present clinical needs, the assessments don’t get used. They are simply another way to track data about clients. Many families do not need referrals if they are already connected to ongoing services. This ends up downplaying and dismissing the actual social work that gets done with families that do not need referrals.

We are measuring the wrong things. The end result is a disservice, even far as injustice to the people we are paid to assist and support.

In the example of my job, I would suggest that the better thing to measure would be things such as:

  1. Were we able to understant why and how this family became homeless? What is the quality of our understanding? How many are we confident that we understand very well?
  2. Were we able to identify concrete goals and needs for the family so that the family would be equipped not only to exit their homeless situation but now be resilient enough to not have to return to shelter? How many families can we say we were able to follow up regulalry to support them in acheiving their goals?
  3. What were some unique ways that social workers in shelters provided support to shelter staff and clients that greatly benefitted everyone involved?

Granted, some of this is qualitative data and thus, harder to collect data about. This kind of data could be more challenging to present than simple numbers. But the numbers by themselves right now don’t really mean much.

I have observed many social workers wonder out loud something along the lines of, “why do they need these numbers?” Maybe this is a leadership issue that why these numbers are important is not made clear to us.

More likely in my opinion is that these numbers don’t accurately represent what social workers’ contribution to the shelters really is. By being pressured to keep these numbers high it also encourages social work staff to focus on the busy paperwork, not on the actual supportive social work engagement with families.

I think these intiatives originated out of a compassionate intent. Getting NYPD be involved and be an ally of street outreach teams may not necessarily a bad policy idea. What is a bad idea is to track progress and success by how many diversion attempts were made. What is a bad idea is that NYPD – which already is relied upon for so many other things beyond their law enforcement roles – is being so relied upon so much for street homeless outreach work. Implemented this way, what may have come out from a compassionate intent resulted in coercion and cruelty for the most vulnerable people in our society.

In regards to being a social worker in a family shelter, don’t get me wrong; I’m still grateful for and so glad about the Thrive NYC initiative to place social workers in family shelters. Even if I don’t agree with what’s being measured everyday I find opportunities to assist and support families experiencing homelessness and related unfortunate circumstances including disabling conditions and domestic vioence.

Social workers in shelters bring unique perspectives that had been overlooked for so long in the past. If asked, I can report out way more than how many assessment I wrote this month, or how many referrals I made. I want to be able to make the case that we accomplish much more than those numbers. Even when we’re falling short I can certainly make the case that the potential for extremely needed and beneficial work is within this iniative. It’s hard to make this case if we’re measuring the wrong things.

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