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A Hundred Days for the Homeless: A Personal Journey
The 100-Day Challenge
November 18, 2020
It is during our weekly Friday Zoom call that Tyrese, a San Bernadino school principal and one of our Team Leaders, tells us that a student of hers needs help. His mother had lost her qualification for subsidized housing and needs $1,500 to be reinstated, which she does not have. The student had not been in school for a while even after he told Tyrese and others that he was determined to improve. “He came in at the beginning of this school year,” she explains, “and he looked us right in the eyes and said, ‘I promise, you guys, I’m going to get it this time. I’m going to do it this time. I have to.’” Then he disappeared. They did not know where he went until Tyrese learned that he and his mother were living in a hotel. Tyrese asks the group if anyone could do something.
I had only met the people on this call a couple months ago. They told me the towns and counties they were from in California, the public and nonprofit organizations they worked for, and I had never heard of any of them. Despite this, every Friday afternoon, I join our scheduled call in order to find safe and stable housing for 100 transition-age youth (18-24) in 100 days.
I am one of eight AXA XL employees chosen to join this 100-Day Challenge. We have been split into pairs to assist four California counties struggling with youth homelessness. The rest of the teams consist of organizations across LA, many have never met or worked together before, and a coach for each county from the Rapid Results Institute.
The Rapid Results Institute (RRI)
Nadim Matta learned about 100-Day Challenges when he worked at Schaffer Consulting. Originally called “Breakthrough Projects,” Schaffer Consulting’s founder came up with the idea back in the 1960’s. They used the approach to break down silos within organizations of large corporations and institutions, the Word Bank being one of them. “Every time I would do workshops at the World Bank, they would say, ‘you don’t understand. These types of workshops work at GE, but this wouldn’t work in a place like Eritrea or Kenya. They don’t have the capabilities,’” Nadim tells me. He is smiling ear-to-ear. “Until one Team Leader who was doing an agricultural project in Nicaragua was so desperate that he said, ‘you know, why don’t we try it out.’ So, I went to Nicaragua with him, and we introduced the idea of a 100-Day Challenge, and it was amazing. It worked wonders, and the word spread around, so I started going from one place to the next, one country to the other.”
Eventually, Nadim thought the work was so beneficial that he convinced the other partners at Schaffer to spin out the 100-Day Challenges into a nonprofit, creating the Rapid Results Institute. Since then, they have done projects such as HIV/AIDS prevention and gender-based violence in Africa, chronic, veteran, and youth homelessness in the US, and on Justice System reform in Mexico.
I ask what the purpose was of forming an entire nonprofit around this type of project management. Couldn’t he simply write a white paper or maybe a book with success stories from around the world? Nadim explains that, “we took the work in new directions. The whole idea about working across agencies, across boundaries in a system came from the work of the Rapid Results Institute. It took the nucleus of the Schaffer work and developed it into something that operates at a system level.” He goes through examples of ways that make people achieve their goals more efficiently, such as having four teams working at the same time instead of one. “All you need is one team to race ahead, then you have these biweekly calls with Team Leaders, and one says, ‘we’re doing this,’ and the others say, ‘wow, we better get our act together.’”
The Institute does not want organizations dependent on their involvement for success, though. “My ambition is to enable the systems we’re in like homelessness or in justice reform, whoever needs this type of work, to make it available without them being dependent on us being there,” Nadim says. He sees the Institute becoming a hub for these projects so it can serve as the research arm in order to continuously improve the process. “The Institute will always have its own learning laboratory where stuff keeps evolving that then gets fed back into the training machine.”
Nadim lights up when he talks about what they’ve done. He tells me stories about presenting to the Kenyan Health Secretary on sustainability and to the Canadian government on pandemics. He gives more examples of how they improved the challenges as if they were artifacts he had excavated and now displayed in his living room. “It’s a science that never ends,” he says and laughs, “because we are such complex human beings and adapting to different contexts and so on. That’s an art, and if it’s static, if it becomes like we discovered it and it’s done, I think it really loses its essence.” He asks me if we did the tennis ball exercise during our introductory meeting, “an amazing exercise that gives the feeling of being in a 100-Day Challenge in the course of three or four minutes.” I did not remember the tennis ball exercise, so we moved on.
First internal meeting
A few weeks into the Challenge, we had a meeting with AXA XL participants, Nadim, and a couple RRI coaches. I was glad to hear that some of the others were feeling the way I had. “I struggled to see what value I could add to the conversation,” recalled Brian Gauder, Head of Property in the North Central Region. “I often thought of consultants I worked with in the past and thought, ‘I am a consultant who is supposed to ask questions and challenge people,’ but even consultants have had some sort of training. It would be like me doing a Rapid Result Initiative in an Operating Room.” Our team members lived with the issue of homelessness every day. They spoke their own language and spent lunch breaks talking to the homeless outside their office buildings. Some used to be homeless themselves. They did not live 3,000 miles away, and they would still be grappling with a lack of housing and how to identify homeless youth long after these 100 days. I felt like a tourist whose questions would only slow down actual progress from being made.
“I’ve made a career out of asking silly questions,” Tom Vargo told me at the meeting. He is Claims Manager of our Aerospace portfolio and was faster than me at understanding what the rest of us would recognize as our roles. Jen Hildebrand, Underwriter for NA Construction, initially felt the way I did. “I wasn’t quite sure what our value would be,” Jen explained, “but then after talking with Tristina who is our coach, she said there was a lot of value in just participating in the calls and bringing up questions to people who do this every day, questions they may not be thinking about or considering, especially when connecting the different organizations to each other.”
Our RRI coach
Luis D’Amire, Underwriting Academy Partner, and I were also able to act as a sounding board for Marney, our RRI Coach. Living in Minnesota, Marney has spent her entire career combating homelessness with a focus on young people who have been sexually exploited. She joins nearly all our Zoom calls from the same room, as we all do these days, one with filled bookshelves and pictures of her family, a purple gramophone horn on a shelf to her left and over her right shoulder, a brightly painted portrait of a woman without a face.
“She was probably 19,” she says of the painter. “She would paint all the time, and at the drop-in center where I was working, there was an art studio in the basement. She had accumulated all this art that she had done, and so we rented out a hair salon and put together an exhibit of her own show. I bought that piece from her.” She then explains why the woman in her painting has no face. “The idea is that you’re not seen when you’re homeless.” Another one of the buyers at the exhibition worked for the Minnesota History Museum, and the work is now on display as a permanent exhibit piece.
Throughout every Zoom call, people sounded motivated and successes were met with applauses and thumbs up emojis, but it seemed like less people were attending, those that did attend were saying less, and a couple of meetings were cancelled without explanation. The successes that the team had also seemed to just come out of the blue, such as distributing health kits and getting homeless youth to take surveys. They did not connect with any projects we discussed, mainly because the projects we discussed as a group did not go very far. I assumed that this was because maybe there were other meetings being held or that it was typical for people to drop off through the challenge, but Marney had a better sense of what was going on. She had told Luis and I during our first meeting that she wanted to get everyone actively participating and make sure meetings were not dominated by a few strong personalities. It turned out, she only needed to worry about one personality.
“I want to start by apologizing,” Levi begins. “I’m probably a difficult person to do this challenge with because I’m very bad at delegating.” Levi is a Project Manager for California’s Family Assistance Program, a nonprofit that assists low-income families in creating safe and stable homes. He is also one of our two Team Leaders and not at all a difficult person to do this challenge with, although he may be bad at delegating.
Levi has a personality that I believe allows inanimate objects to like him. He’s 23 years old, but forget everything you know about 23-year-olds. His self-confidence is through the stratosphere, but he never comes off as arrogant or as someone masking insecurity. One reason for this is that he is extremely passionate and focused on his work. He talks about his job the way a coach or a player does at halftime. When I press him later about his motivations, he responds, “the reason why I do it is because if I don’t, nobody else will, and that’s what I’ve seen proven true throughout most of my professional career. A lot of the tasks that I take on and a lot of the things that I do, I do because nobody else is willing to, and it needs to get done.”
Another reason is that he’s earned it. Very few people get to where he is from where he started, and his job reminds him of this every day.
“It’s a very typical story of young men who come from where I come from,” he tells me. “My family is riddled with addiction. I have three older siblings, all of whom are still actively engaging in heroin and meth use, pills and drinking. You name it, my family does it. We’re like the United Nations of Substance Abuse.” His father left the day before his fifteenth birthday, but not before taking all their savings, and a short time later, his mother said she could not care for him along with his sister’s two kids, who lost custody because of her drug use. So, he moved out with nowhere to go, mainly to the streets, but also bouncing between group homes as he got kicked out of them. “I used to be a very hostile young man,” he says. At 23. “In my opinion, justifiably so. I had a right to be pissed off, but you can’t be pissed off in other people’s houses.”
He got jobs in construction and as a mechanic in a motorcycle shop. He saw men in their forties and fifties work their bodies into the ground. He learned Spanish. He spent some of his free time cage fighting. It was the Our House Youth Shelter that selected Levi to go on a trip. I doubt it was at random. Back then, they must have seen something in him that we all can clearly see today. “I was 17, they asked me to go to Sacramento to share my story with elected officials. I did, and it turned out I was really good at it. So, they have been taking me back multiple times a year ever since then.” The California Coalition for Youth, a statewide lobbying agency for homeless and runaway youth, asked him to join their board. He was eventually voted Chairman of that board along with the advisory board in San Bernadino.
From all impressions, Levi is very good at his job, but the 100-Day Challenge has a way of magnifying little barnacles of weakness. He seems aware of what this challenge has magnified for him and what the benefits of improving could bring. “My relationship with IEHP [Inland Empire Health Plan Community Resource Center] has grown tremendously throughout this process because of Tarnia being on the team, and the relationship with Tyrese is very beneficial because she’s a great community champion. I think that the collaboration is huge. I think the downside is that I did not properly utilize all the talent in the room, but the nice thing is that I can learn from this.”
Second internal meeting
It can be difficult to recognize skillsets you have developed unless you step outside of the place you developed them. For many of us at AXA XL, most workdays revolve around some form of project management, setting a goal with others, working to accomplish that goal, making sure everyone is staying on track. This does not happen everywhere, and during our second internal meeting, with only a few weeks left, we discussed other ways we have been able to help our teams.
Mark Slater is an Underwriter on the Subcontractor Default Insurance team. He and Chris Fasser, Chief of Staff for the Americas, saw a way to help early on for Santa Barbara. “The two Team Leaders for Santa Barbara were exceptional,” Mark tells me, “but they were new to running meetings with so many people, there were 24 people usually, so Chris and I saw an opportunity to give a little guidance. We said, ‘think about starting a meeting with these methods, state the goals, set the agenda, highlight the successes over the past week.’ They just took that and ran with it.”
Laura Wagner, Underwriting Director of Construction Professional and Pollution Lines, found two ways to contribute. “One, they weren’t getting very specific in the measurements, so I asked a lot of pointed questions which got them thinking. Then, when they were talking about marketing, I realized that they were mixing a lot of messages. They were really good at marketing to homeless youth, but I think they did not have a good idea on how to market to landlords and other stakeholders. So, I got our marketing department involved.”
Tom Vargo kept three steps in mind throughout the challenge. “You need to identify a goal, you need to reach agreement amongst all parties that you will try to obtain that goal, and you have to have periodic check-ins to obtain that goal. It sounds overly simplistic and it is, but it’s something we quite often overlook, even in our own business, routinely.”
Help for a mother and son
Tyrese says she and her colleagues are ready to collect cans or UBER for her student and his mom who had to move into a hotel. She is heartbroken to see a student so eager to succeed but lose their footing because of circumstances out of their control.
Michelle is a member of our team and works at the Family Assistance Program with Levi. She recommends that Tyrese contact the KEYS Organization, a nonprofit that provides supportive services for low-income families in San Bernadino. She does, the mother fills out the KEYS application, and the organization agrees to support her in getting reinstated. It is an organization that Tyrese goes back to, being impressed with their turnaround time and lack of red tape. They help another homeless family Tyrese knows find a place in a couple of weeks.
The 100-Day Challenge creates temporary environments, with a constantly tweaked mix of crisis and safety, in order to unlock human and organizational potential, but what teams accomplish in 100 days is not the true measure of success or failure. By getting these organizations to work through “contrived crises,” a term Nadim has used, they learn about skillsets they may not have considered unique or as useful as they turn out to be, they expand their reach to others with different resources, and they learn what they can accomplish when put under a bit of pressure.
It is what these groups do after the 100 days that matters most. Did they make connections that they can rely on in the future? Do they have a better understanding of their own skillsets? Have they raised their own bar of success? Chris Fasser phrases it another way. “I know we were setting our 100-day goal, I think being able to stretch for a goal is important, but then so is the self-reflection, being able to say that this is a longer process, and everything we do, even if we don’t hit the right numbers, sets us up for something in the future. I think the sustainability piece is the biggest part of it.”
Success through COVID
Our initial plans were to meet everyone in person in the beginning and possibly at the end of 100 days, but like many plans this year, we all stayed home. Maybe our teams would have had more cohesion or our strategies more organized if we were all in the same room hashing it out for a day. We certainly could have had more fun if we met at the end, but California had been one of harder hit areas of COVID this summer. This not only hindered team members from the same LA county getting together, it made it harder to help the homeless which are more exposed to this disease. It meant that we could not plan an event that homeless youth might attend. It complicated matters on where to house them. COVID loomed like a wall on any path to get more kids into homes.
What we could do was demonstrate what was possible with so many restrictions, a task that truly fell to all our non-AXA XL team members on the ground meeting with the homeless, calling landlords and housing organizations, getting contact information, and distributing health and sanitation kits. In 100 days, they not only housed dozens of transition-age youth, they fundamentally changed how they monitor and assess their needs. They implemented a federal tool called the VI-SPDAT which measures the chronicity and medical vulnerability of homeless youth and helps allocate resources based on a wide body of social science research. The VI-SPDAT had been discussed within these organizations for years but was never given enough of a push.
Levi described getting all the right people together. “I had the 2-1-1 Director and the Coordinated Entry System Director. I had the Director of Behavior Health TAY Program which represents all the TAY Centers around the county. I also had the Director of all the Homeless Liaisons which represents all the homeless high school students which is called McKinny-Vento. They’re basically the youth who are not necessarily living on the streets but they’re couch-surfing, they’re sleeping in their car, they’re at an uncle’s house three nights a week, they’re just not stable. So, the woman who is in charge of all of those positions throughout the county also was in all those meetings.”
Leaving the 100-Day Challenge
My AXA XL colleagues and I were happy to find ways to contribute, but mainly we were all really grateful to simply learn about their world and meet people so dedicated to helping the less fortunate.
“I have a new appreciation for what people have to go through that are trying to help with homelessness,” Luis D’Amire said. “I know there is not an unlimited set of funds, but it was surprising to me all the leaps needed and the hoops people had to go through to get stuff done. To fix this problem,” he adds, “it is going to take a lot of effort.”
Laura Wagner had a similar experience. “The number of people who have devoted their lives to serving others is just amazing to me. We work in the corporate world, and we forget that there’s a lot of people giving a lot of time, energy, effort, blood, sweat, and tears to people who are less fortunate, and they do it because they’re really good people.”
Jen Hildebrand was able to clarify how many of us felt about going through this 100-Day Challenge during this time. “This has been a really difficult year, and this initiative, to be a part of something that’s helping people, has been a real bright spot in 2020. I feel a little bit unsure of how to be helpful right now. There are so many things to think about and focus on. It’s been nice to have an outlet for that desire to help human beings in a time when we can’t gather or be together.”
Edward Murphy is a Senior Reinsurance Placement Officer with AXA XL. He can be reached at Edward.firstname.lastname@example.org
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