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Technical Assistance in the Time of COVID

July 15, 2020

COVID-19 hasn’t just disrupted our lives and the lives of our families, friends, and neighbors. It’s also drastically shifted the speed and focus of our work.

The need for social distancing means the delivery of services such as technical assistance (TA) must adapt to an entirely remote or virtual delivery system. So how do we provide necessary assistance in the time of COVID? The last few months have given me some ideas.

For more than 10 years, Abt’s HUD TA team of about 20 staff has supported the agency’s work with local Continuums of Care (CoC) and homeless assistance providers to reduce and end homelessness. When COVID hit, part of the team’s work necessarily shifted to helping communities and providers develop and implement a COVID response. We initially focused on working with CoCs to figure out how they could collaborate with public health and emergency management officials to prevent spikes in COVID-19 and to ensure the safety and wellness of people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic.

More recently, the TA team’s work has shifted and expanded again to helping cities and counties around the country manage the influx of $4 billion in Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) funding via the CARES Act. For example, we’re helping determine how best to invest this funding and using data to support the development and implementation of concrete goals (e.g., number of people or households communities need to re-house). And while every community has a coordinated entry system to help people find the help they need, processes might need to change in the shadow of COVID; we’re helping communities figure out how best to design and implement those system-level changes.

Typically, we’d be working in-person and side-by-side with these communities to address these complex challenges and, of course, to help them implement solutions, but that’s simply not feasible at this point. Nevertheless, solutions are needed and our team is finding ways to provide them. The following, then, are four tips I have for providing remote TA in the face of social distancing.

1. Act quickly while thinking strategically. The good news is, once the CARES Act funding was approved, HUD moved extremely quickly to get the resources out the door to communities. We knew our support needed to be delivered every bit as quickly but, while response time is hugely important, we also knew that we needed to support the community’s ability to be strategic and intentional in this moment of crisis. For example, one community opted to put several million dollars of its ESG CARES Act funding toward homelessness prevention, only to have it disbursed to households at-risk of homelessness in just 90 minutes. This meant that a significant portion of their funding was gone, and none of the resources went to assist households already experiencing homelessness. Stories like this illuminate a real but less-obvious need for gaps analyses and coordinated investment planning, particularly when new and different funding is in play.

2. Stay nimble. In addition to needing to shift our approach to direct TA, HUD requested that Abt and all other TA providers adjust our approach to remote learning with communities during this time. Prior to COVID-19, Abt was part of a team of TA providers that delivered five-month-long virtual learning courses through Communities of Practice (CoPs). The CoPs sought to bring together about 10 communities at a time to work through and build their capacity in a particular topic area. Once COVID-19 hit, there was a recognition that communities would not have time to work through a five-month curriculum and that we needed to get the information to them and build their capacity in a significantly condensed timeframe. We then switched to a five-week intensive TA workshop model, which required our team to deliver the content and build the communities’ capacity in a very short window. 

3. Embrace the challenge. Virtual or in-person, the goal of all TA is to encourage engagement and retention. We’re making the most during this moment of crisis to ensure that we are even more collaborative and engaging in our TA approach. That means many more virtual meetings with cameras on, meeting with communities whenever they can connect, and devoting time internally to discussing our various TA efforts. During weekly team meetings, we try to touch base on the full array of virtual TA that we’re delivering now, from weekly office hours, to help desks, intensive TA workshops, product development and remote TA delivery to dozens of communities. We may not be able to work with one another in person, but we’re still collaborating. Maintaining this connection ensures we can address the needs and goals of our communities, and are able to deepen our own internal knowledge of the unique challenges being created by COVID.

4. Leave space for yourself. We are all under tremendous personal and professional pressure right now, and it is critical that a part of our TA approach includes carving out space for ourselves. With many of us working very long hours while juggling personal commitments, it’s critical to prioritize taking breaks for yourself. It could be as brief as a walk outside or making sure that you use some vacation time, but it’s critical that our team takes time for themselves as well.  

The challenge of providing virtual TA is real, yet it holds promise, too. We’re finding new ways to use data, foster learning, and apply the right expertise to help communities design their own tailored solutions to pressing problems.

Have a pressing TA problem? Let’s talk!

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