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The holistic approach~ RH Opinion | Editorials~ April 1, 2015

RH Opinion | Editorials
The holistic approach
April 01, 2015

Gov. Peter Shumlin is taking a comprehensive and holistic approach to the ambitious challenge of ending child and family homelessness by 2020.

In fact, a pattern is emerging, a new style of governance, not just within the Shumlin administration but elsewhere in Vermont, as policymakers and administrators try to break down categories, share information and look at problems broadly. There is no guarantee that the new initiatives will work — no government initiative can banish family tragedy or failure — but a target date of 2020 can act as a spur to action.

The project on homelessness is meant to get families into permanent housing quickly, with a coordinated response by agencies able to help families get back on their feet. Hal Cohen, secretary of human services, described the challenge well. “The stress and instability of homelessness can have profound impacts on children’s health, behavioral development and educational achievement. … For families without housing, we can do better than a motel room on cold nights.”

Financial assistance would be “front-loaded” to get families into housing and to connect them with the employment, counseling, health care, child care and other services they need to pull them out of crisis. Agencies will have to share information, and the barriers between agencies will have to come down.

There are other arenas where this approach is taking hold. After the killing of two toddlers last year, major reforms have been undertaken within the Department for Children and Families to ensure that social workers, law enforcement, prosecutors and others work together to protect children. A holistic view of the child ought to allow the specialties of all the helping agencies to be brought to bear in a coordinated fashion on the welfare of the child.

Programs to take on the challenges of drug addiction and crime are trying to do something similar. Drug court and rapid intervention programs are designed to look at drug addicts in a holistic way, to help steer them into treatment programs instead of jail, to put them on a more productive path and to save money for the state. The rapid intervention program had an early pioneer in the Chittenden County state’s attorney’s office, but it has been tried with some success in Rutland.

Further, Project VISION in Rutland has taken the holistic approach to a new level. Under the leadership of James Baker, the former chief of police, and Mayor Christopher Louras, the program brings together participants from numerous agencies for meetings every other week to focus awareness on specific problems in the community. Thus, law enforcement, the mayor, the schools, social workers, health care workers, drug addiction specialists, housing specialists meet to discuss specific people or neighborhoods or specific houses on specific street corners and to marshal all the forces of the community to solve burgeoning problems.

The key factor is that Project VISION, like the housing or addiction programs, is not seen as an extra project added on to the normal business of governance. It is what governance looks like now. It is how we must govern in order to address conditions as they exist in our communities.

The holistic approach reaches beyond social services. Shumlin’s program to clean up Lake Champlain looks broadly at the many sources of pollution filling the lake and targets resources where they will do the most good. Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz says the agency has compiled enough specific information that it can target specific problem farms or other sources that are the source of an overabundance of pollution.

Even in education, that most amorphous of topics, Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe is seeking to bring a comprehensive view of demographics, finance and educational options down to the local level to help school officials make informed choices about how to shape their programs.

These are all ambitiously designed programs, and whether the money is available to make them all succeed is another question. But the pattern is there: information and expertise marshaled for solving specific problems. It is not all Shumlin; many officials are involved. But Shumlin has caught on to the trend.


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