A Bias Towards Longevity

One of the weirdest things about homelessness is that the longer you are homeless, the better you are at being homeless. And many services – government, not for profit, faith-based, etc. – feed into this bias. They are generally difficult to navigate unless you have been in the system for a long time.


It seems once or twice every year (at least) some organization has an intern pulling together a guide of services for people that are homeless. It takes them months. And it may have value to the intern if they are staying in the field or are trying to figure out the array of services that exist for people that are homeless.


Want a more efficient way to do it?


Give five chronically homeless dudes a pizza and an hour and they can write out the whole thing for you. Heck, they can likely rank order each shelter, feeding program, day service, outreach program, etc. based upon their perceptions of their awesomeness. (“This shelter is three bunks out of five.”, “The breakfast program at St. Mildred’s is a solid five spoons out of five.”, “The lasagne dinner at the temple the last Wednesday of the month is two volunteer happy faces out of five.” Etc.)


How did we get to a place where there is a bias to longevity?


Much of it has to do with false promises and waiting lists. Most of the people that experience homelessness for long periods of time have been promised many things over the years that have not panned out the way initially promised. Or, the offer of service resulted in being put on a waiting list, not on actually providing service.


Waiting lists are a game of Survivor – outwit, outplay, and outlast and you too may get the pot of gold at the end of the waiting list rainbow. Meanwhile, an entire bureaucratic system has been put in place to manage the waiting list and the data associated with it. There are now staff whose sole function is to do nothing other than manage more names being added to a list.


Perhaps this is a large dollop of pessimism that is making you feel uncomfortable. That discomfort may work to our advantage of solving the problems in front of us. Imagine if we all felt a sense of urgency to appropriately prioritize and serve those with the longest homelessness and deepest needs first? Imagine if we decide to tear up our waiting lists and focus on priority lists. Consider what would happen if we could have the fortitude to distinguish between being eligibility for a service and needing a service. Furthermore, what would it be like if you/your system no longer had people with lower needs consume resources that should be reserved exclusively for those with the deepest needs?

Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong

5 Responses to “A Bias Towards Longevity”

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  1. Robert Ward says:

    Our prioritization list feels a lot like a waiting list. We’re using the method Cindy Crain described at NAEH 2015: chronically homeless and VI-SPDAT score of eight or higher are priority level one, and within priority one we go by enrollment date into the system. Inflow into priority one is high and outflow is low. It appears this pattern will continue for the foreseeable future. Any thoughts on how to improve prioritization within priority one?

    • Iain De Jong Iain De Jong says:

      Hard to get too specific in a brief response, but it comes down to several variables in your community:
      1. Does a strategy need to be considered for existing PSH tenants that do not require PSH?
      2. Is priority 1 too broad in how you have defined it (catching too many people)?
      3. What is the process being used to assist a person become document ready? AND, what is the process being used to locate housing?
      4. Do other resources from other parts of the service delivery continuum need to be redirected to increase the amount of PSH?

      • Robert Ward says:

        We do try to move folks on to other subsidized rental housing such as Section 8 and my agency continues to deliver case management to those that still need it so they are essentially still in PSH; it’s just not being paid for with a CoC grant. Redirecting resources is certainly something that has occurred to us and some progress has been made on that front but there’s still work to do and barriers to overcome. Document ready and housing search assistance processes don’t have an impact on the imbalance between supply and demand of PSH as far as I can tell. We have cultivated relationships with various landlords over the years but even while we have good working relationships it seems to be getting more difficult to find housing because the economy is improving, the rental housing market is tightening and the supply of rental housing at or below FMR that meets Housing Quality Standards is flat or possibly decreasing.

        California passed some legislation last year that makes it easier (free) to get birth certificates and ID’s so the biggest challenge we run into there is when we have to request birth certificates from outside of California.

        #2 is essentially my question. We designed the prioritization rules based on the HUD Prioritization Notice CPD-14-012 and modified it based on CPD-16-11 but those notices don’t have much to say about prioritization within priority one. What’s the best way to make priority 1 more narrow? Some have suggested raising the bar on the VI-SPDAT, so within the chronically homeless population we prioritize everyone with a 12 (or whichever number) above everyone below that. Or we could prioritize the 17’s over the 16’s and so on but I don’t think the VI-SPDAT was designed to be used in that manner and I don’t know that it is precise enough to indicate severity of service needs with that kind of specificity.

        We could increase the number of cumulative months living in a place not meant for habitation or a shelter needed to get into priority one to 24 or 36 months out of the last 36 but this would present a challenge because our HMIS implementation (Bowman) requires users to select from a drop down menu and once you hit more than 12 months, you cannot indicate a specific number higher than 12 which means this data has not been collected on all of the people that have already been enrolled in the system.

  2. K. K. says:

    Hey Iain,
    I was quire moved by your comments at the MSHDA Homeless Conference in Kalamazoo, your keynote talk on Thursday Morning, one and a half our talk. I’m sure you could have continued without pause.

    Was this recorded? I need more time to decipher. You made too much sense to me. I would like to listen again, and again. The information you presented was quit overwhelming, but correct!