Car Dealerships & Homeless Facilities

Car dealerships try to get you to do three things:

1. Buy/lease from them

2. Finance through them

3. Service your vehicle with them

The entire experience of the dealership keeps reinforcing these three things, implicitly and explicitly. In the process of buying/leasing the car they talk with you about finance options and how great the service team is. When engaging with the finance people, they reinforce your purchase/lease and talk about how great the service team is. Go to get your oil change, and they have stimulation that reinforces your purchase/lease and may even get you thinking about the next vehicle with them because of the sales team or the amazing financing opportunities. 

Visually, the car dealership knows their business and reinforces it unrelentingly. The psychology of reinforcing decisions through advertising is rather amazing. What you won't see in a car dealership, for example, is messaging about the importance of taking public transit or why biking to work is good for you and the environment. 

Maybe it is time homeless service facilities like shelters and drop-ins starting functioning more like car dealerships.

Let us assume that we all agree that we are in the business of ending homelessness. (As an aside, I know that sentiment is not universal.) Our business model - and advertising - needs to support our objective. If we are not doing that, with fierce singularity of purpose, we may be inadvertently be making our work that much harder. 

When I tour through homeless shelters, what do I see on the walls and bulletins boards and such? In a nutshell, confusion. I see advertisements for spaghetti dinner at the local church and when the podiatrist is coming to visit and day labor services and what the VA can do and where to worship and where to get clean underwear. I see advertisements for AA meetings and when the career fair is and how to use the telephone and when to do laundry and who to meet with to get a bus pass. I see rules posted and changes to operating hours of another organization and places to worship and when the barber is coming and a reminder not to loiter outside the front doors on the sidewalk. Some of these are on colored paper. Some of these have long-since expired. Some lack sufficient detail for me to know exactly what to do. Some are so seemingly intrusive I wonder who got access to the facility to post it and why they were granted permission to do so.

What I don't see in most shelters and drop-ins? Clear advertising and messaging - implicitly and explicitly - about the core business, which is getting people out of homelessness. We bombard people with noise and confusion. Generally we are well-intentioned but misguided. We overwhelm service users with stuff that does NOT help them get out of homelessness, but rather help them manage their experience of their homelessness.

When we work on homeless service facility improvement, one of the first things we do is try to harness the message so that the business intention is clear. All of those things (podiatrists to AA to spaghetti dinners - and everything in between) may be well-intentioned. Heck, for some they may even be helpful (though maybe more helpful after moving into housing). But they are the WRONG things to be supporting, messaging and focusing on in homeless shelters and drop-ins. 

My request of you this week is to take a look around - literally - and remove anything that is not absolutely focused on the core business of ending homelessness. If that seems to extreme, then consider housing messaging to be the dominant focus with all else relegated to its own area. 

What should that housing messaging be? Think back to the car dealership. How do people get housing (the ability to figure it out on their own or through a program like Rapid ReHousing or Permanent Supportive Housing)? How do people maintain their housing (what supports and community resources will help people when they are in housing)? And, how do we make sure that people do not return to homelessness? You can enhance the message by infusing data like the number of people that moved into housing, how long it took, and how many returned. 

Our ability to focus on housing should be unapologetic and blatant. For some, this will be a focus on how people can figure it out on their own. For others, it will be how coordinated entry works, the assessment process and such. Confusing the message only confuses the process and strays us away from the core business of what we are trying to achieve. 

Be more like the car dealership. Even if you loathe car salespeople (especially of the used variety). You may not like them, but they are really effective. People that you serve don't necessarily need to like you, but you too need to be effective.

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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