All a Matter of Perspective

To the pessimist, a breath mint is empty calories. To the optimist, it means fresh breath. It is all a matter of perspective.

Ending homelessness is all a matter of perspective too.

All too common for me this past year has been debate over what it means to “end homelessness”.  At first I found this frustrating, but the more time I have had to reflect the more I think it warrants definition.

We can end chronic homelessness. How do I know this? Well, we created it through policy and program instruments that either didn’t serve certain populations or prolonged people’s experience of homelessness through therapeutic incarceration. There is also enough of a body of evidence that proves certain interventions work effectively with this population.

We can end episodic homelessness. How do I know this? Because if we provide supports that address people’s presenting issues rather than just providing housing, the issues that keep causing the household to come back for services are mitigated. There is also enough of a body of evidence that proves certain interventions work effectively with this population.

There are others that want to have the debate about ending homelessness starting with prevention. Truth is, we suck at predicting who will become homeless and who will not even when two households have seemingly identical characteristics. Most prevention efforts that provide financial assistance to households are a complete waste of money if you want to prove that the money was well spent and that your investment is what actually prevented the homelessness. Prevention assistance should go only to those people that most clearly resemble the existing chronically homeless people in your community.

Others with the prevention argument will focus on broader social policy issues. Are these important? You bet. But I won’t wait for them to get solved. Those that do direct service delivery need to focus their primary attention on those who are presenting as homeless NOW. So yes, I would love for youth in care processes, income supports, disability determination, assistance for veterans, inventory of affordable housing, living wage, an end to economic poverty, access to appropriate health care, etc to all be addressed. But do I think all of that has to be fixed before  homelessness can be ended? No. Going back to my breath mint analogy, this is like someone saying we would never need breath mints if we just got rid of all foods that caused bad breath.  Chances of that happening are slim to none.

This is usually the point in a discussion (debate?) where someone says “Aha, told you there will always be homeless people!”

And you are right. There will always be people without a home. Ending homelessness means that it is infrequent, rare and short in duration. In other words, ending homelessness will resemble the majority of people who ever use a homeless shelter – once in a lifetime, for a short period of time, and they never come back again.

Ending homelessness means that shelters have to be centers of opportunity that get people out of homelessness as quickly as possible and back into housing as quickly as possible. They cannot be places where people languish in programs. It means that the intake into your homeless service delivery system has to: a) truly function like a system; and, b) exhaust all natural support options before accepting people into your services.

I say homeless shelters have the same role to play as your local fire hall. Do you want there to ever be a fire? No. Do you go to great lengths to try and make sure you never need to call the fire department? Indeed you do. Does that mean you want to get rid of all the fire halls? No. You just want them to respond as quickly as possible when you need them, address the emergency as professionally and least destructively as possible, and then get out of your life. (And I suppose for some of you having the firefighters be good looking would be an added benefit, though not compulsory to get the job done…which reminds me there is never a Social Worker Calendar but there is a Fireman Calendar in most communities…but I digress…)

Then there are those that try to convince me that they cannot end homelessness because they have tried for 3 or 4 or 5 years (or whatever length of time) and that they invested tons of time and energy creating a Plan to End Homelessness and it just didn’t work. Dig a little deeper, though, and there are certain things that I find more often than not:

  1. There was never an investment in professional development of service providers to actually do something different and get different results. Instead they were doing the same things as before, just calling it something different, and wondering why nothing changed.  If you want to move service delivery forward, the community has to invest in teaching people how to deliver their services in a way that is aligned to what those services should achieve. It is all a matter of perspective – lipstick on a pig is still a pig in my books.  Okay, maybe that is harsh. Try this on for size – asking a plumber to become an electrician overnight without any training and expecting something not to burn down is a crap shoot at best, a calculated catastrophe at worst.
  2. Their Plan stinks. If you have lousy directions you will never reach your destination regardless of how hard you try. The Plan is supposed to be a blueprint of not just what you want to do, but how you will get there. Invest in some subject matter expertise to update or re-write your Plan and get things back on track. It is all a matter of perspective – you can have community write down inspirational messages that have unrealistic targets and a lack of clarity on when and how things will get done by whom; or you can invest time and energy in a Plan that provides clear, unifying direction.
  3. There is an absence of leadership within the largest service providing organizations or the community as a whole that wants to end homelessness. It’s all a matter of perspective – if people are in the business of homeless service delivery they should be working their tails off to put themselves out of a job eventually, not keeping themselves in a job forever.
  4. The Continuum of Care is a few French fries short of a Happy Meal, clueless of how to orient, organize, hold accountable or fund a service delivery system that is oriented towards ending homelessness or else is “bullied” by providers into maintaining the status quo. It is all a matter of perspective when it comes to a CoC. Either they are there to keep the peace or they are there to champion change. Either they are there to keep organizations funded and happy or they are there to put homeless people and their needs front and center in service delivery.
  5. The Plan does not speak to triaging or prioritizing people seeking service. To me this is akin to a person showing up at an emergency department of a hospital with the common cold getting the same level of treatment as someone who has just had a heart attack. This is a ludicrous proposition and I think most of us would agree is a skewed perspective. And yet many Plans do not appropriately dimension which groups of homeless people are served under which conditions to get which intended results. It is a matter of perspective – the Plan provides clear priorities of which people should be served first and why; or it tries to be all things to all people…a jack-of-all-trades, but a master of none so to speak.

So, do I think homelessness can be ended? You bet your butt I do. But it is my passionate perspective and driving desire to understand and replicate practices that work with strong empirical evidence that give me the confidence to say so. Ending homelessness for me is not a fantasy. It is not something nice to do if the conditions lend themselves to the possibility. Ending homelessness is an operational imperative, striving to achieve results regardless of context, and ensuring there is planning and resource allocation to support the efforts. Does that mean no one will ever be homeless again? Hardly. But we will divert all those that we can and house the rest as quickly as possible after they become homeless. We will take the service rich shelter environment that exists in so many places and reorient that towards supporting people in their homes based upon presenting issues.  We will track our progress and make refinements over time as new evidence emerges on how best to do the work.

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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