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?

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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