Move Upstream to Prevent Problems Before They Occur

Updated: Aug 18

With so many issues vying for your attention, having a way to think about how you spend your time and energy is essential. I’m sharing the following story about how I have come to understand the issue of homelessness with the hope that it will give you a new lens with which to see problems in your own life.


While participating in a leadership development program over a decade ago, I had the opportunity to tour a homeless shelter and help make breakfast for 40 men. During the tour we learned our community had around 500 emergency shelter beds, and on any given night, more than 700 individuals in the city and suburbs were homeless.


After cracking more eggs than I had cracked in my entire life, the faithful director of operations corrected two notable misconceptions I had about homelessness in my own community:

  • I thought most men would be chronically homeless (i.e., homeless for over a year), but men in this category only represented about 20% of the homeless population. The vast majority of the men at the shelter were there because they had temporarily lost their housing.

  • I never imagined children being homeless, but almost 50% of the homeless population were families with children under the age of 18. In fact, 15% were between the age of 16 and 20, not accompanied by an adult.

After our visit, a group of us committed to making breakfast at the shelter once a month. It felt good to do good. After two years of volunteering at the shelter and getting to hear some of the men’s stories, I wanted to see if I could help in other ways.


While reading about homelessness, I learned that some cities successfully screen individuals at the front door of the shelter to possibly provide one time financial assistance, mediation services, or assistance with housing start up costs. Diversion strategies like these prevent individuals and families from entering the homeless system. This approach seemed smart, but I wondered how the issues of homelessness could be addressed further upstream.


Dan Heath, author of Upstream: The Quest To Solve Problems Before They Happen, writes, “Downstream actions react to problems once they’ve occurred. Upstream efforts aim to prevent those problems from happening.” Heath provides a framework for thinking about how to shift our energies upstream to address personal, organizational, national, and global issues.


During my research I found a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising funds to address community needs. The organization uses a data-driven approach and works to develop solutions to overcome critical community challenges. I decided to stop volunteering at the homeless shelter and begin donating and advocating for the organization that funded initiatives at various points upstream.


The organization funds homeless prevention initiatives for comprehensive discharge plans from area institutions (hospitals, correctional and mental health facilities), eviction and foreclosure programs, and local legal services programs.


Research suggests funding support services just a bit further upstream helps prevent people from being evicted. In addition, funding for mental health and substance abuse programs and employment programs for at risk populations can make a difference.


Further upstream includes funding for supportive and affordable housing.


The cumulative impact of these programs is immeasurable. The investments made a difference in the lives of hundreds of individuals. But the problem of homelessness in the community still persists.


The text to the left of the stream in the visual below depicts the experience a homeless person could go through before entering a shelter. The text to the right includes initiatives communities can provide to help prevent people from becoming homeless.



Homelessness is complicated (more complex than I’ve depicted here). To address the root causes we must understand the system - the combination of the people, institutions, and policies. When we look at the complete system, we can see problems at each level. While many people tend to make assumptions about the causes of homelessness, poverty is the greatest predictor.*


We need targeted solutions and dedicated people at each point along the stream, but any community with a serious goal of reducing homelessness must address upstream causes.


According to Dan Heath, three forces keep us from moving upstream:

  1. Problem Blindness: Not seeing the problem or thinking it’s inevitable.

  2. Lack of Ownership: Thinking it’s something else’s problem to solve.

  3. Tunneling: Focusing on urgent but not important matters.

To address upstream issues, Heath suggests answering the following seven questions:

  1. How will you unite the right people?

  2. How will you change the system?

  3. Where can you find a point of leverage?

  4. How will you get early warning of the problem?

  5. How will you know you are succeeding?

  6. How will you avoid doing harm?

  7. Who will pay for what does not happen?


Upstream thinking can be helpful in your own life. Is there a problem you are experiencing or seeing in the world that would be better addressed by heading upstream?


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Note: The poverty rate in the United States was close to 12% in 2018 and African Americans account for almost 26% of those living in poverty (the highest percent of any racial group). African Americans represent just over 13% of the U.S. population but account for more than 40% of the homeless population.