Ending Homelessness: Slogan or Policy Proposition with Action?

Ending homelessness. Sounds great. Really hard to do.

When you say it…when people you work with say it…when other organizations say it…when elected officials say it…do they mean it? Do they mean it the way you mean it?

Say it again: ending homelessness.

If I were to ask anyone, “Do you want to end homelessness or do you want to increase homelessness?” the answer is going to be, “End it.”

If I were to ask anyone, “Do you want to end homelessness or do you want to keep managing homelessness?” the answer is also likely to be, “End it.”

Here is the difficult rub: we will never be able to stop all housing instability. Some teenager is always going to get thrown out of their home because of their sexual orientation; some spouse is always going to have to leave their partner because of abuse; some life event or confluence of events will always result in some people being un-housed.

We can end chronic homelessness. That one’s on us. We manufactured it. We failed in policy responses and actions to stop it. The best we can do in all other types of homelessness? Divert people to solutions that do not require use of homeless services. Or if there is no safe and appropriate diversion alternative, make the state of homelessness as infrequent, short and non-recurring as possible.

“Let’s make homelessness infrequent, short in duration and non-recurring” does not have the same slogan magic.

“Let’s end homelessness once household at a time” may be more accurate, but again loses some oomph.

If ending homelessness is translated into policy and put into action, there is a boatload of work that needs to be done in many organizations and communities. Here are the sorts of things you would expect to see if there was a true commitment to end homelessness:

  • A consistent approach to diverting people away from homeless services whenever it is appropriate and safe to do so;
  • Street outreach that houses people directly from living outdoors into their own home, and that measures their effectiveness by doing so – and does not measure what they do by contacts or distribution of survival supports;
  • Drop-ins and day centers that distinguish between helping people get out of homelessness while meeting their basic needs and trying to be a community support to all under-housed people in their neigborhood;
  • Shelters that have an unrelenting housing focus, keeping stays as short as possible, eliminating any program that prolongs homelessness or is not directly linked into housing acquisition, and which sees all shelter staff regardless of position as a form of housing worker, rather than seeing housing work as solely a specialization within the shelter;
  • Professionalization of services and equipping staff with the training they need to actually end homelessness;
  • Investment away from pet projects and any service that does not end homelessness, and into housing programming that works, including supports to people once housed;
  • Prioritization of financial assistance and supports to people with the deepest needs first;
  • Investment in professional resources to locate housing at a price point people can afford (they don’t teach real estate in social work schools);
  • Coordination of services across all service areas working on meeting the needs of people when homeless.

I will go a step further and say that if a community wants to be higher performing at ending homelessness in policy and action, they would consider and implement things like:

  • Performance based contracting when there are appropriate controls for the types of people that will be housed and supported through various programs;
  • Consistent, annual investment in core competency training, and staying engaged with the main currents of thought and practice in the field;
  • Public declaration and sharing of results in the efforts and outcomes of various programs relative to the investment made in each;
  • Financial incentives and/or a streamlined re-application process for funding for higher performance;
  • Re-tooling of programming like transitional housing in the traditional sense to bridge housing or rapid re-housing;
  • Appropriate integration (with privacy controls and consent) across homeless, housing, health, corrections, income support, and child welfare systems;
  • Stopping investment in prevention programming unless the household has been homeless before and/or has the characteristics of existing chronically homeless households;
  • Ceasing to deliver seasonal sheltering (winter shelter, wet weather shelter, or heat shelters), and instead investing in professionalized housing-focused year round sheltering;
  • An end to showcasing (and re-traumatizing) past program participants by having them relive and telling their story;
  • Prioritizing based upon multiple co-occurring factors like chronic homelessness, frequent service use, tri-morbidity, location of homelessness, and acuity score.

Will communities put their money and actions where their mouth is? Will communities or organizations keep saying they are ending homelessness but keep engaging in activities and funding that prove the opposite? Does anybody think delaying implementation of activities and investments that will truly make a difference (maybe to appease the laggard service provider in your community or the politician that loves a particular charity) will help anyone in your community that is chronically homeless achieve the solution to their homelessness any faster? How many more people in your community that are homeless need to die before you actually embrace ending homelessness in policy and action?

 

2 reactions Share

5 Thoughts on Street Outreach to Housing

In a few weeks time we are delivering Street Outreach to Housing Training in Tennessee. Here are five thoughts that may encourage you to come and join us, or send others from your community:

 

1. Encampments are difficult to maintain if you are a person experiencing homelessness. A well organized encampment, when assessed and understood properly, can be a clear sign that the person has a number of organizational and life skills to make the leap directly to housing. 

2. Great street outreach to housing work allows you to assist people in moving directly from living outdoors into apartments of their own without even requiring going through coordinated entry, in several instances. The income (once you factor in informal income sources) and resilience of the person can make them a great candidate for accessing housing without needing Rapid ReHousing or Permanent Supportive Housing resources. 

3. Technology is your friend in outreach. The measure of great outreach is not how many new people are found each day, or how many contacts are had with people that are already known. It is about selectively and intensively working with a small group of people to resolve their homelessness, not prolonging their homelessness. Google Maps, shared databases, and the ability to take photos is just about all that is necessary to become hyper-organized in street outreach across outreach providers, parks, by-law, etc.

4. Different entities working at cross purposes is a shit show. You need to know how to structure a protocol across different groups like outreach, by-law, police, etc. so that there is measurable accountability of who has the lead in which aspects of the work, when and how to measure service efforts towards housing, and when and under which conditions a response by others (non-outreach staff) may be triggered to remove a camp - and even then, what is the role of outreach staff.

5. When the outreach worker is the conduit to resources it inadvertently results in dependencies and prolonged homelessness. If the outreach worker is not equipped with the right skills for contact with action, then outreach quickly fails. The measure of successful street outreach is not "trust" in and of itself (as some outreach workers claim), but the ability to use skills like Motivational Interviewing and Assertive Engagement to translate trust into the belief that the outreach worker can really resolve their homelessness.

 

We hope you will consider coming to join us in Tennessee in a few weeks. There are still a few spots. You can register here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/street-outreach-to-housing-nashville-tn-tickets-29079301975  and get a 15% discount if you use passcode AWESOME

Comment on this article Share

Making Authentic Leadership Work

In the Master Class on Leadership, I teach how to make authentic leadership work. I try to live my leadership from a place of vulnerability and authenticity. Here is how I work hard to try and make that happen.

 There are four elements to being authentic in leadership.

  1. Self Awareness
  2. Transparency in Relationships
  3. Fair Minded Consideration
  4. Positive Moral Foundation

 

Self awareness is trying to understand what your strengths are, without boastfulness. It means you appreciate the talents, wisdom and knowledge that you have coupled with your experience. It also means you know your weaknesses intimately, but do not wallow in self-loathing about them. Weaknesses are an opportunity to figure out how to compliment your skill set with that of others. The last part is perhaps the one that is toughest to learn – how you can and will respond to emotional stimuli. If I am truly self-aware I know what the best possible response to news of all types can and should be, and I diligently and thoughtfully practice that response. As someone with deficits in the whole feelings department, that has been tough for me to really figure out personally, and I have offended people I wish that I hadn’t – and didn’t mean to.

Transparency in relationships is when the leader is open with their own thoughts, values and beliefs not because they expect everyone to fall in line with that and assume the perspective of the leader in those traits, but so that they deepen their understanding and awareness of where the leader is coming from. Transparency is not an exercise in evangelization. But let us be clear, that being transparent opens up a new type of vulnerability that many leaders struggle with when it comes to issues like homelessness that are often moralized. How a leader really feels about homelessness is new territory for a lot of Executive Directors and Presidents of homeless serving organizations.

Fair minded consideration is about seeking out alternative viewpoints than what we might say are the leader’s own natural conclusions. And in so doing, the leader opens up to considering other ways of doing things. When and how are leaders in your community malleable? When have they proven capable of changing direction based upon the opinion of others? Are there any instances when they openly admit that a different approach than their own holds more merit than what they were trying to achieve?

Positive moral foundation is a call to be ethical and distinguish that which can be called “right” and “wrong” from an ethical perspective in the service we do and the decisions we make. When was the last time you and your colleagues or community had a conversation about the ethics of ending homelessness? I am guessing you have been so busy doing the work you have not got around to that in a while (or ever). Probably the best time to do it is sooner rather than later. Maybe why you do this work is completely different than why they do this work – yet you thought you were on the same page.

Comment on this article Share

Marvin

I had long knew of Marvin. Cynthia of the National Alliance to End Homelessness put a name to him when we did a session together at the summer conference a while back. You know Marvin too.

Who is Marvin?

Marvin is the guy that pops up in your rules for your program. Maybe not by the name "Marvin". But you have served Marvin and created rules because of him. 

It goes like this...

Once upon a time there was a guy named Marvin. He did some outlandish shit. You created a new rule because of Marvin. Everyone now must adhere to the rule because of Marvin even though it makes no sense that they do so.

For example: Marvin lit some paper on fire. Now you have a rule that no one is allowed to have a lighter in your shelter or drop-in center or food program. People must turn over their lighter upon coming on the premises. If they do not, services are terminated.

OR...

Marvin once clogged the toilet with toilet paper. Now every person who is going to use the toilet has to ask for toilet paper before going into the john. 

OR...

Marvin once wore a Guns'n'Roses t-shirt that other shelter guests found offensive. Now, no rock t-shirts may be worn on premises.

OR...

Marvin once re-enacted the Tom Cruise scene from Risky Business. Now no one is allowed to walk around in underpants or socks or lip-sync.

 

All of the above are real examples that I have seen in my travels. No joke. And somewhat appalling. But the fact of the matter remains that many service providers and even government funders have rules that were born from anomalies rather than what happens on a day to day basis. The impact of it is such that some people experiencing homelessness are not served - or not served well - because you still have Marvin rules.

So do me a favor (and probably Cynthia too given it was her idea to talk about the Marvin Rule in the first place): go through your policies and procedures. Go line by line. See if there is anything in there that has more to do with Marvin and less to do with most people that you see and serve every single day. Deal with the one off situations as one off situations. Delete any rules that are actually just because of Marvin.

1 reaction Share

A Letter to Myself of 15 Years Ago

This week I am leading another Leadership Academy on Ending Homelessness. We sold out again. It is a great honour that so many people want to hone their leadership skills on this important social issue. As I was preparing and reflecting on the materials to be delivered this week, I wrote a letter to myself that I wish I had 15 years ago.

 

Dear Me from 15 Years Ago,

 

You struggle to listen to others at this stage of your professional development. Maybe you will listen to yourself from the future. Here are important lessons that you should learn sooner rather than later.

Leadership does not mean being superior. It means helping the people that follow you be super. You are smart. But no one likes to be bludgeoned by your intellect. The smartest person in the room is the first to be ignored if you NEED everyone in the room to know you are the smartest person.

If you inspire people, that is leadership. If you feel it necessary to order people, that is a dictatorship. Know how things turn out for dictators? They are obsessed with losing power to the point that they bully others. Don’t do that.

Think first in and last out each workday is the way to go? Working multiple weekends a month? It isn’t. To work your best you must take time to rest. You may think you are impressing others with your commitment to 12 hour days and coming in on weekends. Soon your friendships will fall apart and your marriage will change – and not for the better.

Others need you to demonstrate humility and confidence. You don’t understand what that really means yet. So instead you demonstrate humiliation and arrogance at times. That is a mistake. Humiliating others makes you look weak. Being arrogant makes you an asshole.

For whatever reason, people are choosing to follow your leadership. Stop complaining. Leadership is not a chore or burden. It is a privilege.  When people ask you how things are going, focus on a positive development that has happened or a new idea that you are working through. Do not answer, “How are you doing?” with “Busy”.

Listen. It is an underappreciated part of communication and leadership. Spend 60% of your time listening and 40% of your time talking (unless, of course, people are asking you to talk all day). Speak at invitation and at strategic times only. Leaders do not spend all of their time listening to their own voice.

Stop being worried about people leaving you or your organization. Train them so well that they can leave and have an impact on other organizations. Treat them so well they never want to.

People being afraid of you is not working. The people that are following you need to be fearless. Not fearful. Know the difference.

Want to measure the bottom line? Start measuring the outcome of your work, not wondering about the income of your salary. As soon as you learn that this is about making a difference and not about making money, everything will change.

Be brave enough to not only make mistakes but to own them as well. If you are pretending to be perfect you will alienate others around you. Encourage others to make mistakes too, including people that report to you. Do not punish people for trying. Praise them and ask what they are learning.

Competition is bullshit is leadership. Creating competition amongst your followers will only get already competitive people going, and mediocre and low performers to quit. Tearing each other down will only bring all of us no where fast.

Find time to be still. Be quiet. Write out your thoughts. Carve time out of your schedule to do these very things. You think this is a waste of time, but you will learn this is key to innovation, reflection, understanding, and deepening your awareness.

Ask for forgiveness when it is necessary. You will harm people. Sometimes intentionally. Often not. Nonetheless, empathise and offer a heartfelt apology. And if you don’t understand the value of forgiveness think of one of the many things people would forgive you for and measure the value you place on wanting that forgiveness.

Let go of the small stuff you have no control over. Losing sleep over things that you cannot influence makes you a worse leader, not a better one.  Influence the big picture and the overall direction. Spend less time in the weeds.

And finally, learn to love your work. Find joy in the privilege to do what you do. If you stop feeling in love, move on and let someone else lead.

2 reactions Share

One Big Thing

Empathy is a difficult thing to practice. How do we honestly go about having a true identification with, or vicarious experience of the thoughts, feelings, or attitudes of another? If you have never been chronically homeless before, in which ways can you go about deepening your understanding of what it is like to move into housing and go through the radical and disruptive change that comes with doing so?

That's right - radical and disruptive change. Think of any big change you want to make in your own life. Bet it sounds great...the outcome that is. Conceptually, we LOVE change. The practice of change, though, is really, really difficult. It is no wonder, then, that for a person or family experiencing chronic homelessness the concept of being housed is a welcome one that is likely to stir up a range of emotions from elation to fear (sometimes concurrently). But the practice of staying housed is a really difficult one. 

Let's explore why a little deeper - and then I have a request for you.

If you have been homeless for a long time, and have a disabling condition, but you have remained alive, there comes a time psychologically when you are no longer working to get yourself out of homelessness. There's like a switch that goes off. And once that switch is flipped you go from trying to escape homelessness to trying to survive or even thrive within homelessness. Your day to day routine is one of being the best person experiencing homelessness you can be. You know where to get food. You know where to attend to hygiene needs. You know where to get clothes. You know where to hang out. 

Along comes you (or someone like you) who, in a nutshell says, "Do you want housing?" and to that person who has experienced homelessness for a long time this is, in many instances, going to sound conceptually like a really good idea. If you were that person who has thrived within homelessness, you can likely see the benefits of preparing what you want to eat rather than what is served on that day. If you were that person, you can see the benefits of using your own toilet and shower rather than sharing one with others or signing up for your turn. If you were that person, you can likely see the benefits of locking your own door to feel safer. If you were that person, you can likely see the benefits of determining your own schedule of when you will go to sleep and when you will rise. 

None of this means there isn't concern or suspicion. None of this means there is no anxiety. However, the idea of putting this change into practice is alluring and feels worth doing.

Then it happens. And the transition is a hard one. Yes, some of the benefits are realized. But it is also really hard to sustain the change. Why? Because there is a complete disruption of routine and so much of what the person that was homeless knew how to do to keep themselves alive and even thrive. Now there is budgeting for groceries and light bulbs and toilet paper. Now there is cleaning up after meals and the apartment as a whole. Now there is loneliness. Now there are challenges not foreseen.

That same person may want to go back to that which was most familiar - homelessness. That same person who was so excited to have housing may be in a position to give up the thing there were excited to have in order to go back to life before the change. Because change is hard.

Now the request for you to try and increase your empathy. 

I want you to think about one BIG change you need to make in your life. To determine what this type of change needs to be, it has to meet the following conditions: it has to be something important to you; it has to be the sort of change that will disrupt your life in some way; it has to be something that would be of benefit to you; and, it has to be hard to accomplish. Some examples of the sort of change you may want to make: repairing a relationship; investing more time to be with your children; maintaining a higher level of cleanliness in your house and car and office; losing weight; quitting smoking and/or drinking; forming a relationship/friendship with someone you have always wanted to have a connection with; maintaining a chronic health condition better.

Then, I want you commit to doing it for 100 days minimum. I want you to keep track of your progress and your setbacks. I want you to spend time discerning how you feel throughout the change process. As you are comfortable, I want you to share your change with others, and all that goes with it. I want you to own every time you feel like giving up and going back to how your life was before you started the change process, and what you did to keep going. And then I want you to try and relate this back to how a chronically homeless person may feel in trying to sustain the change they are going through when they move into housing.

Remember, change is hard - and if you get through 100 days you will have to keep working to sustain the change still. For example, did you know that 6 out of 7 people that have a heart attack return to the lifestyle that caused their heart attack within 18 months of having their heart attack? That's how hard change is to sustain - even when it is a matter of life or death.

And here is my change that I will own out loud in this blog for transparency and which has been an issue in my life ever since I broke my hip a number of years back - I am going to take the steps necessary to lose 38 pounds. I need to for the sake of my health. It will be hard because I most often eat in restaurants and spend a lot of time on planes in a sedentary environment. It will come with sacrifice because when I am home I would much rather spend time with my kids than go out and exercise. I have had setbacks in previous attempts. I will see how close I move the needle towards achieving the goal within the first 100 days. Through my struggles to achieve this, I hope to deepen my empathy with just how hard change really is to accomplish. What will you do?

2 reactions Share

Hope

Hope is the only currency we really deal in. Not false promises. Not dreams of a better day. Hope is a nuanced belief that life is worth living; that tomorrow can be better than today; that next week can be better than this week; that next month can be better than this month; that next year can be better than this year. Hope is about leaning into expectation, while concurrently creating the reality of that expectation. To have hope is to take meaningful action toward a desire future. As a belief, hope requires us to move from a crossing of the fingers and wishing upon a star to doing the work to create the desired future we want. Hope is difficult to quantify. There are not any reliable “hope” performance metrics. How many times did you help a family or person experiencing homelessness find hope? is not a common reporting question – nor should it be. Yet, if you don’t believe and support hope for every person you serve, you are likely in the wrong profession. You can’t say you support hope for some people you serve, but not for others. You can’t decide that some people are lost causes. The moment you think some people will never escape homelessness for stable housing is the same moment that you likely reached your tipping point of burn-out. Hope is essential for trauma-informed care and the spiritual scarring that comes with living through an exacerbated traumatic cycle. The impacts of the trauma may never totally heal, but that doesn’t give you an excuse to abandon hope or to think that recovery is hopeless. Hope is one of the foundations of a recovery-orientation to this work. A future where people move forward from the impacts of their mental illness is one that requires hope. Reclaiming capabilities, rights, responsibilities, roles and the like will not happen without hope. Hope makes us champions of a future not yet realized. Ask yourself not only if you believe in hope – but if you are living hope. And if you are not, then time for deep reflection on how you put hope into practice. 1 reaction Share

The Three Metrics I Admire Most

When a community starts wondering what data to collect and look at when measuring progress to end homelessness, it is easy to generate a number of pieces of data that may be interesting to look at. Before you know it, there are over a hundred fields...the proverbial elephant being a horse drawn by committee. And what happens? The data does not get captured. Or it is inconsistently captured. Or there are time delays in data entry. Overall - a bunch of crap. 

So if you want to simplify this - the Brown M&Ms if you will - focus on measuring three things really well.

Continue Reading Comment on this article Share

10 Critical Questions for Every Shelter and Shelter System

At National Alliance to End Homelessness Conferences the past couple years, in our training and transforming of shelter providers and shelter systems, and one of the foci of our upcoming How to Be an Awesome Shelter Learning Clinic in Dallas, are these 10 critical questions that every shelter and shelter system should be asking themselves:

Continue Reading 1 reaction Share

Signs of a Bad Shelter Proposal

Recently I was asked to provide commentary on a new shelter being proposed in Florida. Shelters are an important asset in ending homelessness when they are focused on helping people get into housing as quickly as possible. Every community needs an adequate number of shelter spaces relatively to the demands in their specific community. And in this Florida community, they have woefully few shelter beds and definitely need more.

Continue Reading 1 reaction Share