Reflections on the 20K Homes Campaign from a Canadian Close to the Ground on the 100K Homes Campaign

This blog is part of the “You asked for it” series. In December, on the OrgCode FaceBook page I asked people want blogs they wanted to see. These blogs are a direct response to the most popular suggestionsThis one goes out to Tim Richter of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. He asked for reflections on the Canadian 20K Homes Campaign in light of my exposure to the 100K Homes Campaign in the United States.

My fellow Canadians, congrats on going the route of the 20K Homes Campaign!

If you were at the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness Conference last year in Vancouver, you probably heard Becky Kanis say nice things about me and the VI-SPDAT. That was pretty awesome. In the process, you learned that I was a Canadian close to the 100K Homes Campaign – if you didn’t already know that. I was the only Canadian invited to the White House along with Community Solutions staff and selected higher-performing Campaign Communities in the US. I am fairly certain that no Canadian was closer to the campaign than I was, and I am grateful for that experience and the opportunity to offer some perspective and observations about the campaign that may be helpful as you move forward with the 20K Homes Campaign in Canada.

First of all, you should know that I started as not being a strong vocal supporter of the 100K Homes Campaign. Then, I had my socks blown off by what was being achieved and how Community Solutions went about working with communities to make it happen. What I misunderstood at the start is that the campaign has more to do with reframing how we think about and end homelessness. It isn’t a program; it is a campaign. When I wrapped my head around that, there was much that I was humbled by and learned from in witnessing the progress and achievements of the campaign.

I share these thoughts with you at the invitation of Tim Richter in the hopes that we don’t miss any important lessons from the 100K Homes Campaign that can be considered, refined and improved upon (perhaps) in the Canadian adventure. In no particular order here are 20 reflections:

1. Work with the providers in your community that are on board. You will NOT get everyone on board. And that is okay.

You can have meeting after meeting after meeting trying to get people on board, or you can just start prioritizing and housing amongst the service providers that are on board. Do the latter. Homelessness has never been ended in a Committee, as the 100K Homes Campaign proved.

2. You don’t have to operate a Recovery-Oriented Scattered Site Housing Focused Assertive Community Treatment program for this to work.

When some communities hear discussion of a housing-focused approach to service delivery aligned to Housing First two things can happen: either hands get thrown up in defeat because there is not and will not be a Housing First ACT in their community; or, a group of critics will tell them that they cannot be successful because they do not have a Housing First ACT. Focus on the philosophy of Housing First, more than a particular Housing First intervention to get you started. It is especially true that you can learn how to align to Intensive Case Management aligned to the principles and service orientation with some training of existing organizations – and be successful. You can learn while you are housing people if necessary.

3. This should kick-start your communities approach to coordinated access and common assessment (or build momentum on whatever system you have). That is one of the great legacies of the campaign.

Sure, it is called a “campaign” but I like to think of it as the seeds planted to grow greater things. In dozens – if not hundreds – of communities across the US that we at OrgCode have worked with that were 100K Campaign Communities, we have taken what they have learned to put it into a highly functioning, fair system with effective triaging. This includes all parts of the service delivery sector – street outreach, health services, shelters, transitional housing, drop-in centres, etc. Communities learn how to go about matching the right person/family to the right program in the right order. Communities get out of a first come, first served mindset. They learn what prioritization really means in this line of work and how to operationalize it.

4. We can do a better job in Canada of tracking how many people stay housed and how many people pass away after moving into housing.

It is hard to say with precision how many people stayed housed in the 100K Homes Campaign. To be fair, this was never a stated objective of the 100K Homes Campaign. Also to be fair, there is a subset of data from communities that demonstrates a greater than 80% housing retention rate. Knowing how many people returned to homelessness more precisely, and how many people die after moving into housing is helpful, especially given the nature of vulnerability the program participants expected. I also would suggest having this information will help us improve public policy and programs. We can do this without a massive amount of extra work if we think it through from the beginning.

5. Get at least some supportive housing and social housing providers on board – and early.

This type of housing cannot and will not be the only solution, but they are an important part of the solutions. Higher achieving 100K Homes communities tended to get some preferred access or set asides to supportive housing and other government assisted housing. In your community, this may require thinking through modified chronological access within the legislative framework that your government assisted housing works through sooner rather than later.

6. Work to the targets you set.

The data will guide you on what you need to do in order to achieve your goal. If you work towards the data as a collective, you will reach the outputs necessary to achieve your goal. If you consider the target only an abstract or “nice to do” you will fail. You will find the targets to be audacious to some. But trust me, they are achievable if you do the right things in the right way. While I shudder at the phrase “take down target” that was used in the US campaign, the concept is an important one. You need to know how many people to house per month to reach your goal. 20,000 Canadians housed through the initiative in and of itself is pretty audacious when you consider the size of Canada. On a per capita basis it is higher than the US target.

7. There is no such thing as a perfect prioritization or assessment tool.

You have likely heard a lot about the use of Vulnerability Index (VI) or the Vulnerability Index-Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT) used in the 100K Homes Campaign. No prioritization tool is perfect. Pick the one that works best. Do NOT, as some 100K Homes communities attempted early on, to create your own new tool. There isn’t enough time. And besides some other tools have already been proven to work, even with their imperfections. There are loads of Canadian communities using the VI-SPDAT and/or SPDAT products with great success – some for several years. Also, don’t confuse a prioritization tool with the campaign or think that just because you have a prioritization tool you automatically have coordinated access. The tool is just part of it.

8. You don’t need to study this to death, nor do you need the permission of academics to validate what you are doing and why.

We already know that ending homelessness saves money. Do we need another study? That would just be a waste of time. And as Becky and others have so elegantly stated, so many in the academic community are behind where the cutting edge of innovation and practice is at on a day to day basis in communities that are pioneering new ways of thinking and doing. If there are community-minded academics that are on board or want to join you along the way, great. But don’t wait.

9. Go easy on the competition aspects of it.

This was probably one of my least favourite parts of the 100K Homes Campaign. Competition was used as a device to stimulate achieving goals, and was primarily used to get entire communities to buy into achieving success. Competition may work for frontrunners or even middle of the pack communities to get further ahead. For those towards the bottom of the pack, it had little impact, in my experience. Ending homelessness matters. From the perspective of the end user of services, what matters is not who achieved it first.

10. You have the chance to fix some of the problems of your service delivery that have plagued you for a long time.

You’ll need to have some rapid decision-making for your community to reach its target. This often means needing a quick resolution to some barriers. Embrace the action. Do NOT form another committee to study it. For those Canadian communities that run most decisions through a municipal city council, you will need to figure out how to manage this in such a way that does not require taking all major decision points back to Council.

11. You’ll have to use some existing resources differently.

The Campaign doesn’t come with a plethora of new resources. That is part of the magic of it. It forces you to use some existing resources differently. And if you get your head around that, you will probably wonder why you used the resources in any other way in the past. One of the biggest things I saw across US communities and continue to see as the legacy of the Campaign is reinvesting resources that managed homelessness or the symptoms of homelessness into real and immediate solutions to homelessness.

12. Keep the focus simple: getting people housed. You will not solve all of the problems with your community’s approach to ending homelessness through the Campaign.

Your job is to house people. You job is not to fix the mental health system or the addiction recovery system or discharge planning issues. Those are important, but you don’t want to delay or hold up this process to achieve that. You can use the success of your Campaign to demonstrate to those other systems that success is possible despite the faults in the systems that impact homelessness.

13. There will be naysayers. And mean people suck.

You would be hard-pressed to not find someone in the 100K Homes campaign communities that did not absolutely hate it. Sometimes this was an existing service provider that always had done things differently. Sometimes this was a local policymaker that had been trying to coalesce the community around a different priority. Sometimes this was an advocate for homeless persons. Just accept that not everyone will welcome the campaign and what it represents, and some people will be very mean about that on a personal and professional level. You don’t need everyone to agree the Campaign is a good idea. You need to weather the storm of meanness.

14. Get your political leaders on board – if you can. Do not wait for them if you can’t.

Mayors are especially impactful to get on board, even in our weak mayor system in Canada. If nothing else this represents an issue that would benefit from all orders of government working together but essentially lands on the lap of local government to solve. To make this all work, give your local politicians a briefing and the talking points to work off of as it relates to what the Campaign does and does not do.

15. Remember this is about ending homelessness.

Simple, but true, the whole reason for doing this Campaign is to end homelessness one person/family at a time. This transcends subpopulations quite well. The campaign identifies people by name, knows their vulnerability and housing instability risks, and then houses and supports them in order. It does not attempt to solve the root causes of why particular groups of people find themselves homeless in the first place. That would be a different campaign altogether.

16. Other work can springboard from this experience.

Do this well and prove to people it can be done and other major change work can follow suit. But don’t make the mistake of trying to do this and 8 other things at the same time. One of the things the Campaign can teach you and your colleagues in your community (which I wish I had learned earlier in my career) is how narrowly focused attention on doing this Campaign well can provide proof and motivation that change is possible.

17. Get traction in 100 days.

The most important time, I would argue (and many involved in the US Campaign would agree) is the first 100 days. This sets the stage for instant results. Will you make mistakes? Yup. And what you learn in that mistake will lay the groundwork for future success. You may want to learn more about how the amazing folks at the Rapid Results Institute helped accelerate change and achieving results.

18. Have a local spokesperson that knows all of the ins and outs operationally as well as what the broader objectives of the Campaign are about.

You will need a local spokesperson about the Campaign for service providers, homeless persons, media inquiries, elected officials, policy staff, the general public, etc. When I reflect on communities that kicked butt at the Campaign in the US there is one person that comes to mind in each of those cities that I could easily identify as the local spokesperson. There was never ambiguity of who was in charge, who knew all the operational details, etc. This wasn’t always the most typical, highest ranking person historically in the local homeless service delivery system.

19. Prove success and watch more investment come your way.

While not a guarantee, one of the things that has happened in a number of communities is the ability to prove that housing people with really acute needs is possible and that homelessness can be reduced – and quickly! Proving this to government and other funders can actually result in increased investment to the community, as well as a reprofiling of existing resources into those services that are proven to work. It can also spotlight the need for increased investment for particular populations. For example, the Americans showed us that being successful can result in new, larger investment in addressing homelessness amongst veterans. Imagine if in Canada we could get more resources for youth homelessness or homelessness amongst aboriginal persons – and not at the cost of other populations already being served!

20. Community Solutions are the real deal.

These cats know exactly what they are doing. You may feel “But they are American” in the same way that many of our US clients say to us at OrgCode “But you are Canadian”. Great ideas don’t know passports. I know of no organization around the world that makes social change happen at such a pace when it comes to homelessness. They are smart. They are passionate. They know what they are talking about. What they are sharing is a damn good idea – not an American way of thinking about homelessness that won’t work in the Canadian context.

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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