Lessons from my Mother About Ending Homelessness

My mom is not a social worker. She has never worked in a homelessness setting of any sort. About the closest she has come, as I recall, was helping out a community kitchen. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t teach me lots about ending homelessness. Here are 10 pearls of wisdom given to me in my upbringing that I apply to my work trying to end homelessness.

Do your best work. Always.

There’s no “mailing it in” when it comes to ending homelessness. Each and every day the best work possible is important. Over time I have come to realize that doing the best work means taking the time to learn and practice… that being well-intentioned is not the same as being highly effective.

A mess can and should be cleaned up.

While my mom would let my room slide (thanks, mom) there was no tolerance for a mess anywhere else in the house. I have applied this life lesson to the messes that I see in organizations and communities. Messy governance and sloppy funding, as well as ugly service delivery are all things that can and should be fixed.

Focus on the important stuff.

This is a tough one to live and follow when the minutiae can try to rule our lives if we let it. In my pursuit of ending homelessness with communities and organizations, I have come to learn it is futile to try and address every last inconsistency with the vision right from the get go. These things take time. And so, focusing on the important stuff has been the way to go – providing training; aligning funding; gathering political will; motivating people and organizations to change. Thinking everyone will get on board and be supportive and engaged from the start is a fantasy.

You have talents. Use them.

In this work, I twist this one a little bit to “everyone has talents”. Each and every person that is served by a housing and homeless program has strengths. Sometimes the toughest job a support worker/case manager has is helping that person find their strengths again – and use them.

The human spirit is an amazing thing.

People can and do recover. They can recover from the experience of homelessness. They can recover from being dislodged from friends and/or family. They can recover wellness. They can recover from idleness. They can recover from economic poverty. They can recover to have a positive perspective on the future.

Being organized matters.

While this remains a work in progress in my personal life, I have come to appreciate the amazing value of a community and each organization having a plan or framework for what it is they are trying to achieve. That way they don’t get side-tracked by crises or distracted by going through the motions of day to day service.

Don’t burn the candle at both ends.

Don’t tell my mom, but I still suck at this. Her point? Being really busy with too many activities and not taking time for yourself will burn you out. Practically, professionally, what I have applied from this lesson is the critical need to prioritize…activities, new projects, funding, who should be served, etc. Otherwise, everything is a chaotic hot mess all the time.

Trust your intuition.

I believe homelessness can be ended because I trust my intuition. It is the right thing to do. My intuition tells me that housing is the only cure to homelessness. So, all I do is try and help people and communities focus on helping people experiencing homelessness to access and maintain housing.

Treat others the way you want to be treated.

There is no doubt that if I were homeless I would be appreciative of people helping me meet my basic needs – shelter, food and clothing. But if it stopped at that, I’d likely be ticked off, especially if I didn’t know how to find housing or access income benefits or had other complex issues going on in my life. I would want people not to judge me. I would not want sympathy. And I would want people to help me with supports to help ensure I never became homeless again.

Never give up.

My mother in a kind and loving manner did not support quitting. Meet adversity? Take it on. Come up against a barrier? Find a solution. Have a difficult connection with another person? Try a different way of communicating. And so on. Ending homelessness is hard work. It is the hardest (and most rewarding) work that most of us will ever do. Some days I have to remind myself – some days I need to remind others – never give up!

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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