Home Making

In the effort to end homelessness, it has been my experience – generally speaking – that getting chronically homeless people into housing is the easy part. Providing the supports to help them stay there is the harder part. Here are a few tips that frontline workers can consider when supporting people in their apartment unit to help with the transition of a blank apartment into a place that feels like home.

Positive reinforce the housing choice.

On the day of move in, meet the person moving in at least one hour before you are supposed to meet the superintendent for getting the keys and moving in. One, this will reduce the likelihood of the person disappearing. Two, if you are even earlier than you said you would be when you show up at the encampment of shelter, you can tell the person that you are early because you are so excited about them moving in. Before they set foot at the building, take the time to engage in positive reinforcement. Let the genuinely know that you think this is a great step for them. Let’s say the apartment is downtown and that was one of the most important criteria in the housing search, reinforce how amazing it is that you were able to find a place that was close to downtown. Let’s say they wanted a smaller place so that it would be easier to clean, before you set foot in the unit talk about how glad you are that they found a smaller place so that it is easier to clean.

If we are sincere in our enthusiasm it is infectious. Our infectiousness will positively reinforce the housing choice that has been made.

Arrange furniture for the day of move in.

If you leave the apartment unit blank looking, it is going to feel more like a prison cell or place where they may have squatted than a place to call home.

Whether your organization has a budget to purchase new furniture or you rely on some great social purpose enterprises (I think of the likes of FIND in Edmonton), make sure that you arrange for the furniture delivery on the day of move-in.

A lot can be said for the new tenant having a say in the furniture that goes into their unit rather than them just being handed furniture that they had no say in. People who have a say in the couch, bed, coffee tables, etc are much more likely to take care of them long term.

While I have seen many a chronically homeless person be overcome with emotions on the day of move in when they get their keys, I have seen more actually break down and weep with joy when the furniture that they picked out arrives and they have a say in where it is set up in their place. Powerful.

Ensure basic needs are in place.

Sometimes this can be achieved as part of the furniture organization, but it is absolutely critical. On the day of move in, people need to have basic needs like toiletries, plates, linens, toilet paper, light bulbs, pots, cleaning supplies, basic spices, etc. If the basics aren’t in place, the individual will have to go elsewhere to have their basic needs met, which will make the place feel less like home.

In some communities I have seen church groups and high school students pull together “welcome home” kits that can be given to the person on the day of move in. It is one less thing to worry about, doesn’t take away from whatever meager income supports they may have, and ensures that the basics are taken care of.

Bring three picture frames.

If you go to a discount or dollar store you can pick up a few picture frames really inexpensively. Give them to the person on the day of move in as a moving in present. Tell them to fill each picture frame with something or someone that is important to them and display them in their apartment.

I have been amazed over the years at how many clients have taken this task seriously and used it to create a focal point in their new apartment. Yes, photographs are common for the frames, but I have also seen tenants create new artwork, put poetry or biblical quotes, press leaves and flowers, put in a small mirror, etc within the picture frames.

Like most of us, we decorate our homes with those things that we enjoy…that represent us…that bring joy to our lives. The picture frames help with this journey.

Bake cookies on the next visit.

A bit schmaltzy, but I think nothing says home like the scent of fresh baked cookies. Plus the time that the cookies are baking provides you the opportunity for engaged discussion with your client. And, if you get an inexpensive cookie sheet it is one more thing they have for their kitchen for cooking in the future.

As an approach to creating bookends, I have also been known to encourage cookie making when the support relationship hits significant milestones or the individual is ready to move on from the program.

Bring a small plant one week after move in.

One of the things I love about Ikea and similar stores is that you can get some indoor plants for super-duper cheap. It doesn’t break the bank to give a newly housed person a $1 plant. It is a good home-making gift.

A few things that I have seen that come out of having a plant – the client talks to their plant; the client cares for the plant; the client is exposed to sunlight because the plant is in a windowsill. I have heard many stories of plants from childhood.

Go grocery shopping within the first week together and make a stew or chili.

A quick way to assess the skill level in budgeting and shopping while also promoting food security is to go grocery shopping. This is usually a longer visit where you can get to know the client better. It allows you to interact with the client in a range of settings. You also get a sense of whether there are any things missing in the basic supplies provided.

Yes, stews and chilis are simple meals. But they are also quite healthy and cost effective. Plus, freezing single portions helps with budgeting food and resources throughout the month. I also think a well stocked freezer is a sign of a place being lived in, and removes worries that clients are going hungry for no reason.

Get a dry erase marker.

Credit where credit is due, this one comes from my buddy Kathy who is one of the most creative case managers I have ever met who has since gone on to become a program supervisor of a Permanent Supportive Housing building.

With the dry erase marker you can write reminders on the fridge (assuming it is one of those glossy white ones…practice in a discrete place first). Things like next home visits, doctor visits, important phone numbers, etc can all be written write on the fridge in one place. Genius.

Give them a calendar.

I have seen some agencies create calendars of their clients with important community phone numbers, but you don’t need to get that creative. Regardless of when the person moves in throughout the year, make sure they have a calendar. In one place in the apartment they can keep track of all appointments, the date, etc. It isn’t a bad idea to put a pen or pencil on a string and attach it to the calendar.

Create a personal guest policy.

I created this one early on in my career. I found I was frustrated if a superintendent or landlord tried to lay out the rules for visitors that were quickly broken and an eviction seemed imminent. Me telling people the rules also seemed to fly in the face of client-centred strategies that I really believed in.

So, very soon after move in I asked clients to create their personal guest policy. This was the client putting into their own words when they thought it would be ideal for them to have guests over, what they thought would be acceptable activities when guests were over, if there were any guests that they did not want over under certain conditions, and what actions they would take if the guest policy wasn’t followed.

The guest policy was never 100% successful, but it did offer something tangible to work off of when there were issues with guests. I could ask questions like “So what part of your guest policy do you think needs to be reconsidered or changed in light of…”

Some clients over the years posted their guest policy in a very visible place that others could see when they came to visit. Cool idea.

Roll up your sleeves to teach skills.

It is naïve to think all chronically homeless people we serve have all of the skills necessary to maintain housing; while at the same time it is unfortunate that some housing workers think they have no skills.

We need to start from positions of strength, and it is really only in spending time with our clients that we fully appreciate what they are capable and incapable of. It is my contention that we need to be willing to roll up our sleeves and actively engage in teaching these skills. Being a successful housing worker means that we have to be prepared to do laundry with people, clean up an apartment with people, scrub showers and toilets with people, go grocery shopping with people, etc. There is generally no other support in the community ready to do those things. Plus, if we see our role as promoting stability in housing first and foremost, we are on the front lines of making that skill development possible. We do with people, not for people, and over time see the skills transfer to the client in their pathway to greater self-sufficiency.

Bring some putty that can be used for hanging posters, pictures, etc.

You don’t want to put a bunch of holes in the apartment walls and the putty is rather inexpensive. If you give the putty to the person on or shortly after the day of move in and encourage them to put things up on their walls, it can take very little time to see the place transform into a decorative space. Whether it is newspaper clippings, artwork, posters, baseball cards or whatever, the individual is transforming the wall space into their own home without damaging the apartment. Plus, as because we want people to be engaged in meaningful daily activities, this type of opportunity is a great way to have people engaged in the activities of home making.

Conduct home visits on time for the length of time you said you would in the early weeks.

The last tip is to conduct home visits more frequently and usually for a greater length of time shortly after a person has moved into their apartment.  This helps reinforce in the home making process that you have a vested interest in their success. It also lets you quickly catch any issues that may compromise wellness in housing in the early days. Adjusting strategy then can be critical for long term success.

It is my contention – and affirmed by people that I have supported in making the transition from chronic homelessness to housing – that the more an apartment feels like home the less the likelihood of damage to the apartment and the greater the likelihood that the person/family will stay there long term and be satisfied with housing. It also reinforces the need to focus on housing choices rather than housing placements, which are also proven to result in better long-term housing outcomes.

If you have great ideas on how to help create home, put them in the comments section of the blog below so that others can read them and borrow from your wisdom.

Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong