If you work in the homeless service sector you should have a very simple career goal – to put yourself out of a job.
I have this belief that homeless and housing support services exist to end homelessness. They don’t exist to make people in human services feel good about themselves. They don’t exist to cleanse the consciousness of corporations through their philanthropy. They don’t exist to keep government bureaucracies humming along.
There is a difference between wanting to end homelessness and committing to end homelessness.
If you want to do something, you may or may not achieve it, and likely only under certain favorable conditions.
If you commit to do something you will have steadfast fixity of purpose. When the conditions are unfavorable you will be the catalyst to actively change those conditions, remaining solution-focused all the while instead of accepting barriers as immovable, intractable problems that get in the way of ending homelessness.
Am I so naïve to think we will never need homeless shelters again? Heck no. But we will have a lot less of them and they will return to their original use – short term, infrequent stays to meet emergency needs. They will no longer be de facto housing. They will no longer be places that we load in program incentives that actually make it difficult to leave. I like to think of homeless shelters in the same way that I think of fire stations – I hope I never need the fire department, but I sure am glad they are around when there is an emergency.
When I make a commitment to end homelessness, I am talking about the entire spectrum of homeless people. Statistically speaking, most people who use alcohol or other drugs are housed – including people with addictions – and therefore I see no reason for homeless people to have to be clean and sober unless that is there choice to be so. My commitment to end homelessness includes people who are actively using…like millions of other people around the world who actively use and have housing.
Statistically speaking, most people with compromised mental wellness – including people who don’t take their meds or see their psychiatrist – never experience homelessness, so I see no reason for homeless people to see psychiatrists or take their meds unless that is there choice to be so. My commitment to end homelessness includes people who are unwell and “non-compliant”…like millions of other people around the world who are in similar circumstances and have housing.
I commit to ending homelessness for people who believe in Jesus as well as those that don’t. If people want to be baptized or join a faith group and begin to worship, so be it. But Christianity – or any other religious belief – is not a requirement to be successfully housed. There are millions of other people around the world who are atheists, agnostics, infidels or skeptics and have housing.
I commit to ending homelessness for people who have experienced conflict with the law, including those people that have done awful things to other human beings young and old. For one, I believe that time served is time served; that the sentence does not continue post-release. For another, and entirely pragmatically, if the evidence is clear that re-offending goes down if people have secure housing, isn’t that in my best interest? There are millions of people around the world that have been incarcerated and gone on to be successfully housed.
So you got a plan to end homelessness? Is that something you want to do or is that something you are committed to doing? The way you go about implementing the plan takes on completely different characteristics depending on which one you believe. And it usually points to particular biases in avoiding service of particular populations, whether it is explicit or not.
So your organization delivers services to people that are homeless? How about putting up on the wall somewhere for everyone to see that your ambition is to solve people’s homelessness so that your organization is no longer required? That you are working for the day where you can close the doors of your drop-in center, sell your outreach vans, give away the beds you no longer need in the shelter, etc.?
I can tell commitment when I see it, and I suspect you can too.
Commitment results in some organizations losing their money because they only wanted to serve homeless people (not end their homelessness) and reinvested in organizations that are committed to ending people’s homelessness.
Commitment results in using data to drive program change and improvements, to reflect on practice and make tough decisions, not as something that is nice to have in annual reports or collected only because some funder asked for it.
Commitment results in recruiting highly skilled people that have a passion for professional development and see their work as professional, not well-intentioned people who have neither the experience nor expertise.
Commitment results in doing your homework to see what else is working, not assuming that you are automatically doing the best work or, heaven forbid, trying to “create a best practice”.
Commitment results in having external folks – other professionals, senior managers from other agencies, funder staff – review and provide helpful commentary on how to make your work even better, not shielding away from criticism or doing nothing with information when it is provided by highly qualified people.
Commitment changes the way we talk about the issues and what we are going to do about it. No longer do we say people “aren’t housing ready” or “service resistant” or any other such phrase. No, committed folks turn that around and instead of blaming the consumer of services instead ask themselves what other types of housing or other types of services do I need to offer to be inclusive of all homeless people?
Want is an inclination. It is a desire. It can be directed to a specific need. But there is no obligation to address wants.
Commitment is a pledge. It is a promise. It means that you are going to do it. It has integrity. It is not just a dream. It is not lip service. It is putting the promise into action. Once you commit – truly commit – you are obligated to make it happen.
Many times I have seen drafts of 10 Year Plans expurgate those sections that speak of commitment or making tough choices, thinking, I suppose, that cleaning out those sections – with the obscene suggestion that we have to do things differently – will make the document more inclusive and readily accepted. Great, so a wide-range of service providers are happy, but what about the people that are supposed to be served by those providers?
I don’t accept homelessness. I am committed to end it. I will speak truth to power in the process. I hope you will too.