Over the past decade the change movement in homeless services has been leaping forward exponentially. There is greater knowledge and acceptance of things like housing before treatment, coordinated entry, using assessment rather than subjective opinion, and overall, ending homelessness. But that does not mean there is always widespread acceptance. One of the greatest struggles in communities are those that have been set in their ways for decades that are unwilling or disinterested in new evidence or practices. This usually begins with a statement of “In all my years of experience…” followed by some explanation of why what is being suggested will not work.
Take, for example, a community I was working with in Florida. The Founder of a non-profit – now quite up in age – came to a meeting with CEOs and Executive Directors to hear me talk about changing homeless services towards a housing orientation rather than a treatment orientation. At the conclusion of my talk she chimed in with, “In all my years of experience people need to have their root issues like health issues and addiction issues dealt with before they can even think about going into housing.”
Or consider another example, from Central Canada when an older volunteer within a particular cultural group remarked, “I have been doing this type of work since long before you were born, sir, and I know for sure that unless the people in my community confront the evils of alcohol first they will never stay housed or build relationships that matter.”
Or one more example to ponder from a conference workshop I was giving in Michigan where the participant came up to me when the session was done and said, “That was the most exhilarating talk I have heard in a long time. It lit me on fire inside. But like all fires you have to be careful. Because you said some dangerous things about getting homeless people housed right away. There’s a reason we have shelters, son. They get people ready to succeed in the real world. Don’t forget that. I’ve been at this since the first shelter opened here. I know what works. In all my years of experience, no one in [insert name of city] would succeed doing what you talked about.”
So what is this all about?
First of all, we naturally equate longevity at an activity or job as success. It is entirely possible to be in the same profession for a long time and not be good at it. In fact, you could do it for a long time and be an uneducated fool. I would hope that is rare, but it is possible. And it may be more possible in the non-profit world or faith based organizations where people can confuse being well intentioned with being knowledgeable or effective.
Secondly, what is being presented is opinion. If it were informed opinion (evidence, data and scientific information combined with experience) these all may be very valuable contributions. However, they were essentially uninformed opinions (experience only – without the factual backbone) that was confusing their years of practice with evidence.
Thirdly, I would suggest that this is somewhat indicative of an industry that rarely embraces investment in ongoing professional development. Too often, citing the “we’re a poor non-profit” mantra, organizations fail to learn and misinterpret what they think with what they actually know.
Finally, I believe this can be indicative of a lack of oversight on the part of Boards of Directors. Each board should be satisfied that the organization they provide oversight to has the knowledge to do the work most effectively. Board Members should attend leading conferences on homelessness and housing, invite external speakers, and read published information on the subject. If they don’t, they may accept what they are told from the CEO or Executive Director as the absolute truth…when really it is absolute opinion.