Don’t Blame the Person Needing Service

On any given day, lots of things can irk me in the pursuit of ending homelessness. But I can say with absolute certainty that nothing bothered me more than the attempt from the USICH to define an end to veterans homelessness which essentially included a provision that if housing was offered and the person said no, that was good enough so long as the organization checked in to make sure nothing had changed.

There have been formidable leaders within USICH. And to be fair, without USICH many initiatives in ending homelessness or political will would not have happened. Maybe this shortcoming is a result of pressure from other federal agencies. Maybe this shortcoming is a result of pressure to produce results before the end of the Administration. BUT, blaming a person needing services to end their homelessness is NO WAY TO END HOMELESSNESS.

A reflective practitioner knows the importance of holding a mirror up shoulder high and asking what THEY need to do differently to get different outcomes. In any human service initiative it is ALWAYS easier to blame the end user for not complying. This is why Housing First became so popular because it challenged that paradigm (and worked).

A community has NOT ended homelessness if every person has been offered housing. A community has ended homelessness if every person has moved into housing or is in the process of moving into housing. That housing, by the way, has to be PERMANENT. Grant and per diem programs and transitional housing and therapeutic programs with residency are not going to cut it.

The problem with measuring the offer rather than the acquisition of housing (even with follows up at set intervals) is that it tells us nothing about such things as:

  • how the housing was offered
  • whether the housing is appropriate
  • if coercion, threats or other compliance based requirements come with the housing
  • the housing provider and whether they are non-judgmental, flexible and supportive in the right manner
  • the condition of the housing or its whereabouts
  • any strings that come with the housing
  • match between behaviour or mobility issues of the person and the type of housing or supports offered

There is an assumption in the current USICH measures that the housing is a fit, that it was offered appropriately and without reservation, and that the issue is the individual, not the housing provider. We would need to know much more about the state of the housing and the approach to the housing offer for this to make any sense whatsoever.

Furthermore, there is talk of using a housing first approach. One of the CENTRAL elements of housing first is consumer choice. We know nothing about whether the type or approach to offering housing was linked to choice. For all we know, it was a “take it or leave it” offer.

As predicted, many communities (and even all of Virginia) claimed an end to homelessness amongst Veteran’s on or about Veteran’s Day. Given that the offer of housing was sufficient rather than knowing anything about the housing or the offer in measuring whether homelessness had been ended, I call bull shit.

But we have an even bigger problem. In a short period of time, communities are going to do PiT Counts. In those counts, invariably communities that claimed an end to homelessness (functional zero) are going to have people that are homeless. The press or the general public will ask “what gives”. The response is likely to be that the only ones counted that were Veterans are those that were offered housing but said no. In other words, any evidence of homelessness will be solely the fault of the persons experiencing homelessness. While there will always be some people hesitant to engage with services for myriad reasons, unless the same community can claim all housing programs have been evaluated and found to be flexible and inclusive and matched to the needs of the people on the street, we are doing nothing more than blaming the victim. Shame.

Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong

3 Responses to “Don’t Blame the Person Needing Service”

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  1. Marti Johnson says:

    Thanks for this and all your work to keep us client-centered, Iain!

  2. Jeff Spring says:

    Sorry, it’s a bit presumptuous that every unsheltered person wants housing. There numbers are profoundly few, but there are some individuals who simply exercise their free will and choose not to want housing. I realize these stories are far more complex than can be described here, but concluding that any occurrence of someone not being housed is a failure of the service provider is founded on a lot of assumptions–in addition to being paternalistic. Overall, I agree with your message, but writing sweeping all-encompassing statements–especially about such a complex problem with complex people–is inherently dangerous.