I’ll Take that as a Compliment Because I am Okay with That

A buddy of mine on the west coast was recently talking to the office of an elected official about a speaking engagement I had there in late 2012. The response in an email, “The [community] reaction was, well….mixed. But I think he is on to something big.”

Now, you might be thinking wouldn’t a unanimous positive reaction to your speaking engagements be better?

Perhaps, but that is not the world I live in. It is not the world that any change catalyst lives in. I hope to bring people along to the reality that ending homelessness is better than maintaining it. I try to break down barriers to serving those that are very vulnerable and marginalized. I try to put common service delivery systems upside down in the hopes that a paradigm shift can be realized. I speak truth to power. I use evidence to back up my positions.

This is not easy work. It is ongoing work. It is iterative work. Many days I can relate to Sisyphus rolling a rock uphill. At times it is very lonely work, even when I lead a very talented team and have the privilege of knowing some excellent service providers.

Am I bold and provocative in doing so? Sometimes. But I warn people that I am about to do so. Now whether they heed my warning, I cannot say. And truth is, when some people hear things they never wanted to hear they shut their ears. I know that between the bold statements I make, statistics I throw around, and the jokes that I tell, that I get people’s attention.

Recently, in an interview for a project on the east coast (now a client) something similar came up when they were considering hiring OrgCode. I am paraphrasing, but the overall gist was, “How can you undertake detailed work to improve homeless services in communities when what you say can be upsetting to folks to hear?”

Allow me to quote my longtime professional colleague Becky Kanis of the 100k Homes Campaign who, I think, sums this up beautifully:

“We are resolute in our belief that complex social problems demand a sometimes frightening degree of honesty: difficult facts must be faced head on and traditional assumptions must be subjected to scrutiny and possible reinvention.”

Ditto. Though I admit Becky said it more eloquently than I might.

Some people are upset that in my public appearances I go out of my way to state homelessness should be ended rather than managed. When I point out the ways in which – even without consciously doing so – their service approach focuses more on managing homeless than ending it, some service providers can react sensitively. I am not insulting their compassion. I am not dissing their desire to serve others. So, when these people are upset, I am okay with that.

Some people are bothered in my written reports that I critique how their homeless service delivery approach can be better, even though countless of volunteers have given hundreds of hours of their time and efforts and non-profits have been doing the work for decades. It is a respectful critique. It is a call to do things better. It doesn’t discount the fact that people tried hard; but trying hard is not the same as performing well. So, when some people are bothered, I am okay with that.

Some people get their knickers in a knot when I talk about how sobriety is not a precondition for being successfully housed or when mental health treatment is not a precondition for being successfully housed. It can collide with their worldview or personal values. It can also be at odds with an anecdote that they wish to share about a specific client or even themselves. Overall data trumps anecdotes in how I see the world. So, when some people get their knickers in a knot, I am okay with that.

Some people get frustrated when I challenge how a criminal background check is a barrier to shelter and housing access. It can be the opposite of how they have thought about corrective punishment through incarceration and the courts, while I have thought about justice and time served. They state that the safety of shelter workers and volunteers is at risk, while I promote risk assessment & minimization and a desire to not have homeless encampments filled with people whose barrier to service was a criminal background. So, when some people get frustrated, I am okay with that.

Some people get vexed when I lay out the case for turning transitional housing into Permanent Supportive Housing, Transition-in-Place, or Interim Housing. I respect they have worked hard to develop the Transitional Housing. I have no doubt many believe it works really well in their hearts, even though the data suggests differently when considered on a national scale. I appreciate that they thought they were doing the right thing. So, when some people get vexed, I am okay with that.

And I could go on. Frankly, I don’t always understand “some people”. But I do understand that the facts of the matter as it relates to working towards ending homelessness can be different than what people think or the traditions that have reinforced that thinking. A fact is a fact, and it may be inconvenient, but facts are the punch in the gut that can require us to look at things different. I am okay with being the lens through which they may see things different. The reaction may be mixed, but I – like Becky Kanis and others that work so hard to change the way that homeless services are oriented and operate – understand that this change is something big. Work on ending homelessness is the most important work I will ever do.

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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