Nov 112011
 

PART THREE: The Structure of the Housing Team and Its Functions

Successful housing programs have three different types of positions:

  • Team Leader – supervises the work, coaches team members and creates opportunities for professional development, assigns households to different case managers, sets priorities and ensures fidelity to the approach. (Read more about Team Leaders, their importance and why they need specialized training.)
  • Housing Case Manager – provides direct support to households (individuals or families) that have been housed and works with them to create an individualized service plan that will help them achieve housing and life stability.
  • Housing Locator – works directly with landlords, property management firms, etc. to secure available units for the housing program. (There is an entire future blog dedicated to how to make this work.)

My experience suggests that in most cases social workers tend to make crappy landlords and landlords tend to make crappy social workers. While there will always be exceptions, I would argue that keeping them separate functions helps. The best Housing Locators I have ever met, for example, are not schooled in social work or other helping professions. They know how to speak “landlord” and how to make the business transaction part of the housing program work. But I digress…and again getting ahead of myself and a future blog.

Each housing case manager can serve a MAXIMUM of 20 households at any one time. Any more than that and you have a list of people that you aim to serve, but truly serve none. Even then, the 20 have to be at different stages of the program and housing stability. About 5 of the households will be more newly housed – approximately 3 months or less. About 10 households will be housed 4-9 months or thereabouts. The remainder will be 10 months or more. This isn’t perfect or absolute in terms of time in the program, but seems to be a good rule of thumb across the dozens of teams I have created, coached or evaluated.

In exceptional circumstances a housing case manager may serve less than the 20 households at one time. The types of exceptions that would go into that decision-making might include: several of the households have a large number of family members; the housing case manager is new to the field; some of the clients have remarkably high acuity and several complex co-occurring issues (for example, let’s say they have Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and are using crack cocaine and have diabetes and have had a recent foot amputation and have criminal charges pending for assault).

Each Team Leader can supervise up to 5 case managers at a time. If you get beyond that number a Team Leader will struggle to prioritize and balance across the team and will not be able to keep abreast of more than 100 households being supported at any point in time. One of the Team Leaders core functions in supervision is to create balance across the team. This balance pertains to the number of households being supported by each case manager as well as the complexity of household needs within those caseloads.

Borrowing heavily from Patrick Lencioni’s fantastic book “Death by Meeting” I have come to instill a very specific approach to meetings in all of the housing teams I have provided leadership to, created, coached or evaluated because I can demonstrate better housing outcomes as a result of the meeting structure. The structure goes like this:

Meeting Type Duration Purpose & Format Keys to Success
Daily check-in 5 minutes Shared daily schedule & activities - Don’t sit down.
- Keep it administrative.
- Don’t cancel even when people can’t make it (which should be very, very rare).
Weekly tactical 90-180 minutes Complete case review focused on problem solving; schedule for next week. - Postpone strategic discussions.
- Everyone on the housing team must be there (no exceptions except illness or vacation).
- Cells/iPhones/Blackberries/Androids, etc. off.
- If necessary, staff can bring case files or open up case management notes on laptop.
- Have someone note decisions.
Monthly strategic 120 minutes Analyze, brainstorm and decide on critical issues impacting success with clients -1 or 2 topics max.
- Prepare & do research.
- Prepare for conflict
Quarterly off-site 1 day Review strategy used to access and maintain housing and build team - Get out of office.
- No social activities.
- Don’t over-structure meeting.

Getting organizations oriented to this type of meeting structure can take some arm-twisting, cajoling and reassurance that it is worth people’s time. However, I have yet to meet a successful housing program that instilled this approach that didn’t see the dividends of it once they got it into place.

All of the meeting types are important, but if I had to put all my eggs in one basket it would be the weekly tactical meeting. This is the meeting where I want each case manager to briefly (90 seconds or less) review each household that they are working with, the client’s current acuity measurement compared to past acuity measurement (read more about one approach to establishing acuity), the case plan priorities for the client, the three objectives for the next home visit with the client and when the visit will be occurring. Each case manager is allowed two holds per meeting for a more extensive discussion with their peers and joint problem solving on particular cases. It is the Team Leader’s job to chair the meeting and keep the meeting moving. I also suggest starting at either end of the alphabet in alternate weeks.

With someone to record all that is discussed on a white board, shared file or the like, it is possible to see at a glance who all is being served by the program, the general state of stability of the case load and the movement towards greater independence with each client. It creates a structure of increased accountability. What case managers tend to love about it is that it gets them out of a crisis mode with their clients and into a deliberate and planned framework…they know how they will spend their day, who they will see and what will be happening during those interactions. This is really important because these types of housing programs are not crisis services, they are case management services.

An example recording of a few client names (names are fictitious) may look like this in the weekly tactical meeting:

Client Lead Back-up Most Recent Acuity Prior Acuity Case Plan Priorities Next Visit Objectives Next Visit Key Notes
Alma, L. Brent Dave 42 44 -Managing tenancy
- Physical Health
- Legal
-Discuss strategies to decrease/address losing keys
- Make appointment with heart specialist
- Ask about going to the library
June
29
Court
July 7
1300h
Bing, S. Jim Brent 33 33 -Meaningful daily activities
-Social Relationships & Networks
-Substance use
- Readiness Ruler re forklift operator training
- Ask about son’s visit
- Discuss NA meeting options
June 28 nil
Cameron, L Brent Jim 40 46 -Substance use
-Medication
-Managing tenancy
-Online AA meeting exposure
-Update Wellness Recovery Action Plan
-Set meeting date with superintendent to discuss bathroom damage
June 25 Court ordered anger mgmt begins July 2

The last piece I’ll cover in the Team Structure and Functions is the type of person who is a good candidate to deliver excellent service given this is professional work (as opposed to charity or volunteer driven work). What I have always wanted on the teams I have created or coached are people who can successfully answer these five questions for themselves and to my satisfaction:

  1. Why am I here? (I want to hear that people share the belief in the mission at hand.)
  2. Where am I going? (I want to hear that people are committed and share a vision of ending homelessness – even if it is just one person, one family at a time.)
  3. How am I doing? (I want to hear that people reflect on their practice and strive to get better; that they want feedback and coaching.)
  4. What’s in it for me? (I want to know what their motivation is for doing the work and how it enriches them. In most instances it isn’t going to be money. What I am really hoping it is NOT is filling time until the next opportunity comes along.)
  5. Where do I go for help? (I want people who will trust their team members and team leader to assist them in case planning, who are dedicated to the team unit as a whole. People who are passionate about learning and challenging themselves are also quite welcome so long as it relates to the mission.)

There is no doubt that the structure of the team is one of the key elements of housing program success. In smaller communities I have seen a shared Team Leader across agencies and/or housing case managers from different organizations collaborating together to form one cohesive team. In larger agencies and communities I have seen multiple housing teams within the same agency with multiple Team Leaders and discrete teams. The key to success is to stay true to the structure to best meet the needs of the people you want to serve from a quality perspective.

Iain De Jong has been involved in the development of his own housing teams and has helped organizations throughout the world establish their own successful housing teams. The structure presented here is no accident. It comes from years of practical experience, evaluation and peer review to land on the right structure for successful housing programs. If you have any questions or want help setting up your housing team to maximize success, drop him a line at idejong@orgcode.com

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.

You can contact Iain De Jong at idejong@orgcode.com.

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