10 Things I Learned this Year: Part One

I get around – in a good way. There were only two 7-day consecutive stretches since 2013 started that I was home. In every other week I was somewhere else one or more days, and when you add it all up, I will spend about 300 days on the road this year unless something changes between writing this blog and December 31.

In response to the most frequently asked questions I get about all of my travel:

  1. Yes, I have super duper airmile-frequent-flyer-point status.
  2. No, I don’t hate travelling, but every airport, restaurant and hotel starts to look the same after a while – with a few exceptions.
  3. Of all the places I have been, I love where you live best.
  4. I parent through FaceTime.
  5. I travel as much as I do because I feel passionate about what I do.

But that isn’t what this blog is about.

This blog is the 10 Things That I Learned This Year. More than a lot of people that may just see the perspective of their own community or may talk to some folks in other communities and go to the occasional conference, I really do get here, there and everywhere across Canada, the United States and even Australia this year. Maybe what I see will be of value to you as you plan ahead in 2014.

This blog looks at the first five items in the list. Come back next week to read the final five!

1. Ending homelessness is like teenage sex. Everyone talks about it. No one really knows how to do it. Everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it.

No organization or community has this thing totally figured out. When people ask me “Where should I go to see it really working?” I don’t have an answer. I can point to dozens of amazing things that are happening in many different cities and counties and provinces/states, but no one place has put the full package together. I think this has happened in large part because:

  • we have pumped up the rhetoric of ending homelessness without communities taking the time to actually articulate what it means to “end homelessness”;
  • we have created an environment where organizations and communities that are amazingly non-judgmental with the people they serve are overwhelmingly judgmental with each other;
  • like teenage sex, if you bring in an experienced person to show the ropes and lessons learned from other places, they get labeled and shamed rather than accepted and learned from;
  • too many communities have never updated their plan to end homelessness to incorporate lessons learned and new strategies, and are clinging to a road map that is dangerously out of touch with the new reality so much so that the Plan has become irrelevant;
  • a lot of the forums where people get together are about sharing information, not about teaching people how to end homelessness. Frankly, I have been to more conferences about homelessness than most people and a lot of them do not provide substance that help people leave and put practices into their operations that will make a difference;
  • most places think they are so different from other places that proven practices elsewhere are somehow not going to be applicable to them (HINT: housing ends homelessness)

2. People want change. They just want someone else to change.

I find there is a strong appetite for change and making program improvements. What I have seen a lot of, though, is organizations or senior managers of organizations waiting for someone else to change first. Leadership can mean making the necessary leap into the dark and act without the benefit of having experience.

And while change seems to (finally) be seen as inevitable, never underestimate an organization’s desire for self-preservation. Funding going down has been written on the wall just about everywhere this year. Instead of digging deep to have the internal conversation about making sure the programs being offered are the best to be offered across the community from the end users perspective, what I have seen time and again is agency posturing and preparation to keep on doing what they have always done, effectiveness be damned.

3. It ain’t a competition to see who ends homelessness first.

While competition may get people initially motivated, what I am increasingly seeing is people turned off by competition. Getting to zero chronically homeless people first in your community actually means nothing. Honest. And if we keep that mentality I can assure you there are not a bunch of communities saying “We’re number two! We’re number two!” They stop or they don’t care or there is no timeline at all.

The factors in each community (availability of vouchers, availability of housing stock, funding, experience and expertise of service providers, government context, leadership, etc.) are SO diverse that unless you factored each one into the equation competing in the first place is pointless.

What we need is a common, structured narrative that keeps us collectively focused around the world on effective strategies that are proven to ending homelessness. We need to get into a mindset of sharing this information willingly. It doesn’t matter who is first – it matters more who is last and how long it takes to collectively get there.

4. We need to focus more on keeping people housed and changing people’s lives, not just getting them housed.

I have learned that too many communities are focused on getting people housed quickly and burning up a lot of resources to do so without investing in the back-end to actually keep people housed. It is very limiting to set into motion a local race to get people housed quickly if: a) you aren’t housing the people that most need it; and, b) there are not the supports necessary to keep people housed.

The measure of success is NOT how many people you house. It is how many people stay housed and have her/his life changed positively through the experience. Ours is NOT a quantity industry; it is a quality industry.

Let us be clear: getting people housed is an output; keeping people housed is an outcome.

And for everyone that is interested in the cost saving part of ending homelessness, it comes from keeping people housed and away from those more costly services on an ONGOING basis. We are not talking about temporary reprieves in service use patterns. We are talking about everlasting CHANGE.

Most often because we are talking about working with a population with complex and co-occurring needs, this means working with a small group intensely, not a large group peripherally.

5. Assessments work…when they are grounded in evidence.

It is entirely possible to structure your service community around a common assessment. I have seen that happen many times this year, and I have seen incredible changes in service delivery when that happens. I have seen communities start to use the data from the assessments to change conversations around service planning and investments in service delivery.

And I have also seen communities that insist on using a tool they made up that has no evidence base to support it. A couple communities that come to mind are ones that brag about being close to ending homelessness. But let’s be clear: while they may be about to house all the people that meet a federal definition of chronic homelessness, that does not mean – or come close to meaning – that all people with acute needs have been housed in their community. Nor does it mean that the people most in need of support and housing resources are in their support and housing programs.

This year has taught me, through data collected in assessments, that many of the most acute homeless people in communities do NOT meet a federal criteria for chronic homelessness.

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About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.


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