Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.

Dec 092013

I get around – in a good way. There were only two 7-day consecutive stretches since 2013 started that I was home. In every other week I was somewhere else one or more days, and when you add it all up, I will spend about 300 days on the road this year unless something changes between writing this blog and December 31. In response to the most frequently asked questions I get about all of my travel: Yes, I have super duper airmile-frequent-flyer-point status. No, I don’t hate travelling, but every airport, restaurant and hotel starts to look the same after a while – with a few exceptions. Of all the places I have been, I love where you live best. I parent through FaceTime. I travel as much as I do because I feel passionate about what I do. But that isn’t what this blog is about. This blog is the 10 Things That I Learned This Year. More than a lot of people that may just see the perspective of their own community or may talk to some folks in other communities and go to the occasional conference, I really do get here, there and everywhere across Canada, the United States and even Australia this year. Maybe what I see will be of value to you as you plan ahead in 2014. This blog looks at the first five items in the list. Come back next week to read the final five! 1. Ending homelessness is like teenage [...]

Dec 022013

Maybe you have no clue what that means. It is a mock-Latin aphorism that means, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Almost 10 years ago, in the thick of a rather large change initiative I felt like I was swimming naked in a shark infested pool after being lathered in pig blood. (There’s an image for ya!) The point being, everywhere I turned I felt I was under attack on some level. Sometimes the attacks were about the credibility of the approach. Other times, it was about the soundness or applicability or relevance of the research. Then there were ethical debates (as if somehow housing homeless people is unethical). Then there were the critiques of process. Oh, and concerns about communication strategy. And for good measure there were some personal attacks too. I am open to criticism and feedback and suggestions on alternate approaches to doing things…when they are credible. What I quickly came to learn is that the attacks had more to do with a resistance to change than anything else. One of the most talented people I have ever worked with, Toby, had a way of helping me get perspective when all of this was going on. He introduced me to “illegitimi non carborundum”. And I have never looked back. It is, perhaps, the best advice I have ever received in how to manage complex change processes. If there are multiple lines of attack deploying various methods, I have seen over and over again that a change [...]

Nov 252013

Let us put an end to waiting lists for housing (or – gulp – shelter for that matter). Let us replace those lists with priority lists. Waiting lists, with some exceptions, are not designed to serve those with the deepest needs. They are designed to serve those that have waited the longest. But here’s the thing – if I have really deep needs it is entirely possible that I will die before my time comes up on a waiting list. Imagine if emergency rooms took the waiting list mentality. Last night, Sally stubbed her toe. She goes to the ER and is told by triage that there is nothing they really do for a stubbed toe and that she should go home. Sally insists on waiting. This morning, around 6am, Bernie sliced his finger while making breakfast. He goes to the ER. Triage tells him they aren’t sure if he is going to need stitches or not. They bandage him up. They tell him to take a seat until a doctor becomes available. They tell him that if anything changes or gets worse, to come back to the triage window. Fred had a heart attack at 9am. Sally is still waiting. Bernie is still waiting. Who gets served next? Fred. But why? Haven’t Sally and Bernie been waiting longer? Yes they have. But Fred’s needs are more acute than Sally and Bernie. If you don’t serve Fred right away he may die. Bernie can wait a little bit. Sally, well, [...]

Nov 182013

Homelessness will not be ended with charity. Charity, throughout human history, has never solved a social issue. It never will. Charity is terrific at meeting immediate needs. Charity can feed you. Charity can clothe you. Charity can even shelter you. But it will not solve the issue that led you to being hungry, naked or without a roof over your head. There will always be a time and place for charity; but we cannot be fooled into thinking that charity was ever designed nor intended to be the same thing as justice. Ending homelessness is a matter of justice. Justice is thoughtful, deliberate and iterative. It is intended to bring about change that allows for opportunity. It is not synonymous with equality, though equality may be an element of justice depending on the issue. Justice is blind to a deserving and undeserving poor. As a matter of justice there is inclusion. People do not have to demonstrate their worthiness for housing. In justice there is a fundamental belief that all people are worthy of being housed. This does not mean that housing comes without price, nor does it mean that housing comes without expectations of behavior. A just price for housing is what one can afford relative to her/his means. It doesn’t mean free, unless the person has nothing. A just approach to behavior sets expectations relative to what is possible for the individual. A just approach does not have expectations that exceed the capabilities of the person. And within [...]

Nov 112013
Overwhelmingly Affordable Housing

192 units of housing. For as low as $25 per month. Seriously. It’s called The Tower. And it’s owned and operated by Crossroads Rhode Island in Providence. The Tower is 100% subsidized. This makes it possible for rents to be as low as $25 for individuals with $0 income, and others paying slightly more based upon her/his income (and only paying 30% of their income on housing). The balance of the subsidy comes either through Providence Housing Authority Section 8 or the State Rental Subsidy Program. When communities talk about having no housing for people that do not have an income, I wish they could learn more about housing opportunities like this one. The 9-storey building is about 100 years old. It was previously owned by the YMCA, and then came to be part of Crossroads’ housing portfolio. How did Crossroads secure this gem? The building was purchased from the Y in 2002.  At the time of the purchase, it was divided into condominiums, the Tower being one, 16 apartments being another, and the Crossroads Agency space being a third.  Funds to purchase and renovate the Tower and Apartments came from a variety of sources including LIHTC, HOME, and mortgage financing to name a few. On two floors of the Tower there are the 16 full, spacious apartments. They are complete with a full bathroom and full kitchen. The only condition to access these apartments is having a disability and have been formerly homeless. On all of the other floors, [...]

Nov 042013

Over the past month or so I have been tapping some managers, team leaders, supervisors and directors on the shoulder to get their input on a range of matters as I revamp some of our leadership training. Every one is in some type of middle-management position. These are all people I respect on many levels and where trust has been built over time. Because of that trust, one of the things I have been interested in knowing from a handful of them are the internal thoughts that they can never share with their staff, but which goes through their minds more than perhaps they’d like to admit. This is by no means scientific, but the common threads of the responses even though they work in different cities and different types of services I found to be quite illuminating. If you are a leader of people, perhaps you can see yourself in these. If you are a frontline staff person, know that it is quite possible your boss is thinking these very things today. And if you are the boss of the boss, you may want to think about how you can provide support to these five common internal thoughts. 1. “I miss the rush of the frontline.” You can work your butt off to move up the ladder and end up in a supervisory position. You may do so because you think you have perspective and expertise that will be of value to an entire staff team, and perhaps do [...]

Oct 282013

What are the core values of your organization? Do you know? Are they buried in an orientation manual? Somewhere on your website, but your just not sure where? Are they something you are required to recite but you don’t really know what they mean – or even how to live them in your work? Values fuel the passion that allows us to bring our work to life. It is the thing that resonates with us on a personal, emotional level that drives us to not only show up each day, but to be the best that we can be. I beg you not just to talk about your organization’s core values. Write them down. Then put them everywhere. Posters on doors. Near the mailroom. In the lunchroom. On the elevator. At the entrance to the workplace. In offices. Front and center on your website and throughout your digital presence. It may sound like overload, but this will provide tangible evidence of what is valued in your organization. And heck, on our worst, busiest days having a visual reminder may just be the nugget that keeps us going. Start every staff meeting and training session you have with a discussion about your values and how to live and practice it in your work. Make it real and operational. The more people can talk about how they are living their values, the more value they get out of their work. Perhaps you are reading this and thinking: But I’ve got a talented [...]

Oct 212013

One of the keys to success is to never stop learning. One of the most certain roads to failure is to think you have it all figured out. And yet we have a culture of false confidence, bravado, fake assuredness, and feelings of failure when we don’t have all the answers. Admitting to others we don’t have all the answers (or maybe don’t even know all the questions to ask) positions us into the realm of vulnerability. It is unfortunate that being vulnerable in this regard in our society is so often seen as weakness instead of strength. Whenever possible we should continue to do our due diligence to research answers, analyze the possibilities of adaptation to circumstance, and replicate practices, procedures and programs when there is an evidence base to support it. But take a step back and ask yourself: How did those people ever get to a place where they created this (thing, knowledge, solution, etc.) because of the same/similar problem or circumstance? They got there from embracing the “I Don’t Know”. “I Don’t Know” stimulates discussion of possibilities. “I Don’t Know” inspires involvement. “I Don’t Know” gets people out of thinking they know everything. “I Don’t Know” is the fuel for continuous improvement. “I Don’t Know” creates new solutions that become part of the library of potential answers to others when they don’t know. If you/your organization/your community never says, “I Don’t Know” you are essentially stating you have complete expertise…that you have all the answers. Sometimes [...]

Oct 142013

That guy is always on the news talking about his program. Why does the funder always take people to look at their program? I wish I had their donor pool. Why were they selected for pro bono technical assistance? I think our community deserves some national attention for all of our great ideas compared to some of the other places I always hear about.   Envy. I hear it. I see it. I have been subject to it. I have felt it. I am learning more about it and thought I would use this blog to share some thoughts on it that one of my mentors recently shared with me, and which I found very helpful: 1. Don’t deny when you are feeling envious Envy is fueled by our emotions, rationalized by the context that we find ourselves in. If we deny that we are feeling envious we are more likely to become disconnected from the things we are passionate about, or worse, become hostile towards those that we are envious of. 2. Consider the big picture Perhaps you have felt envious only to later learn that the person or program that you held up on a pedestal was secretly dealing with its own struggles, fears, irrational thoughts, insecurity, or even envy of others? What we are envious of is often just part of the complete package, and when taken out of context, can even dehumanize the others involved, seeing those that we are envious of as objects, not people [...]

Oct 072013

“Systems-thinking” isn’t just the flavor du jour. It isn’t a fancy way of talking about organizations working cooperatively or in partnership with one another. It is critical for addressing complexity inherent in human service systems given the diversity of service recipients, service organizations, and context(s) in which both the recipients and organizations function. Many types of human service delivery try to figure out how to get the right person/family to the right type of service at the right time. That is a great thing. But in order to really tackle that issue, we have to accept three things: The experience of each individual/family is complex that lead them to seeking or needing service. We can neither control nor predict all of the influences on the individual/family nor the response the individual/family has to each influence. Organizing services and benefits is complicated across multiple entities. Without a “brain” function to provide influence organizations do not self-regulate and manage particularly well and are more likely to be self-centered than end-user centered. Let me put this another way…without a “mission control” function a person/family would likely need to go to or call multiple organizations to find the one that best meets their needs rather than having a central place to get that information. Throughout this process the organization is more likely to try to determine if the person/family is a good fit for their program rather than trying to determine of all the programs that exist within a particular geographic area which one [...]

Sep 302013

You’ll have to excuse me I’m not at my best I’ve been gone for a month I’ve been drunk since I left These so called vacations Will soon be my death I’m so sick from the drink I need home for a rest There is a certain crowd who would have read the above lines and immediately recognized them as lyrics to one of the greatest Spirit of the West songs to party to. It’s the sentiment of the song that I love – needing home for a rest after indulging beyond what might be considered a healthy consumption threshold. As far as I’m concerned any person can choose to drink or not drink. That is their business, not mine. As I have argued previously, sobriety is not a precondition for housing success. This doesn’t mean there won’t be some people that may choose to have sober living. I support that choice for people as well. I have many dear friends and professional colleagues that have found sobriety in their lives because it made sense to them. It also doesn’t mean that drinking doesn’t come with consequences. It does. For some people, the consequences are quite severe. But I will not judge because of an addiction. There remains no shortage of homeless programs out there where the consumption of alcohol or other drugs after a period of sobriety will result in immediate exit from the program – even eviction in most instances. Seems to me that people that are in [...]

Sep 242013

A reader asked me to talk about where Transitional Housing fits into Coordinated Access and Common Assessment. In their community there is quite a bit of Transitional Housing. While they feel that the Transitional Housing works well there, they say so without having the data to support the claim. Nonetheless, they are open to considering better ways of using their Transitional Housing – even if it means changing the Transitional Housing operating model in their community – if there are solid reasons to consider it within a Coordinated Access and Common Assessment Model. These are my thoughts. I didn’t want to wait and just put it into the regular blog cycle as I have come to appreciate there are several communities wrestling with the same/similar issues.   So, you have some Transitional Housing and wondering how that all fits with Coordinated Access. Perhaps you’ve taken a look at the VI-SPDAT and thought – “I see Permanent Supportive Housing, Housing First and Rapid Re-Housing, but what about Transitional Housing?” It is no accident that you do not see Transitional Housing. There isn’t evidence to support Transitional Housing as an effective support and housing intervention – as it is most frequently implemented in communities.  What does that mean? Well, the notion of compliance-based, rigidly time limited, program-centric supports and housing with a focus on “housing readiness” is likely never going to be a good idea. But that doesn’t mean there is no place for your Transitional Housing within your continuum of services [...]

Sep 232013

A Point in Time count will always been an indicator of the minimum number of homeless persons and families on any given night. It is imperfect, but hugely important. But don’t waste the opportunity to make your local count exceptional. Here are 10 ideas to ensure your PIT count kicks-butt: 1. Add a survey. If you don’t include something like the VI-SPDAT at the same time you are out doing your count, you are wasting a huge opportunity to gather much better information not just on the number of people homeless, but the needs and depth of acuity of those that are experiencing homelessness on that night. This small add-on provides exceptional benefits for only a small amount of additional work. 2. Create a “by name” registry. Decrease duplication, while improving the ability to know exactly who is homeless by ensuring you get the name of each person surveyed. The results of the count become more real when you can operationally use it; and knowing people’s names is the only way to advance from the count being an interesting “research” project to making the findings immediately, personally relevant. 3. Use the information for planning purposes and operationally moving forward. If your community takes the attitude “we do this because we have to for funds” rather than “we are going to do the most amazing count possible to help end homelessness” the opportunity to make a difference as a result of the count is lost. For example, if you used the [...]

Sep 162013

“Be awesome to each other, as I have been awesome to you.” I’m paraphrasing – and I am no theologian or scripture scholar – but I think that is essentially the message in the 13th Chapter of the Book of John. It was a new commandment given by the most famous homeless guy of all time to the people that looked up to him and hung out with him. I find it fascinating that there are so many Christians out there that can worship a homeless fellow on Sunday, and forget all other homeless people come Monday. I find it even more fascinating that some of those same Christians run “faith based” service organizations. But let’s be clear, they operate their ideological-interpretation-towards-Christianity-based-service organizations. I am not anti-Christian. I am the same guy who used to be a Christian chaplain in a mental health facility. I have a rather large crucifix tattooed on one of my arms, and not for aesthetic reasons. Perhaps you’ve heard about how God helps those that help themselves. I have heard this phrase from many Christian service organizations and Christian leaders in community discussions about homelessness. Can you please show me where that phrase exists in Christian scripture? Oh wait. It doesn’t. Jesus, it is said, multiplied loaves and fishes so that all would have enough to meet their needs. I checked again. There is no mention of the bread or sea critters going only to those that repented, publicly declared love to him, were baptized, [...]

Sep 092013

A few months back I lamented on my Facebook page that I was frustrated that I could have a room full of people and walk through the data and evidence supporting a Housing First approach, and people would still debate it. One of my pals, Marcella Maguire, commented that it was because of ideology. That got me thinking and researching why and how people’s beliefs influence what they see as truth…or how and when truth can influence people’s beliefs. Then a couple weeks back I was doing another training and one attendee was quite adamant that just because something was published in a peer reviewed journal or had data to support it didn’t make it correct. I was dumbfounded by the statement. But it also inspired me to keep thinking and researching because if we are going to go about ensuring there is adequate affordable housing, effective social policy for marginalized populations, sufficient social welfare, put an end to homelessness – or any of the other pursuits that I am passionately invested in – then we have to better understand why some people don’t believe the facts. One of the reasons people don’t believe the facts when presented to them or go to great lengths to try and persuade others that the data is faulty or not from reliable sources is because of something called “motivated reasoning”. It turns out our emotional responses and ability to reason is intertwined. We are hard-wired to have an emotional response to information quicker [...]

Sep 022013

Instead of reading this blog, if you’d rather watch it as a rant on YouTube, click here. Does your organization know what it is? Because the more I travel the more I find there are many organizations that have an identity crisis. They are… …a substance abuse program masquerading as a homelessness program… …an evangelical outlet to bring in more followers and increase the congregation masquerading as a homeless shelter… …an alternate transportation provider for individuals without bus fare masquerading as a street outreach provider… …a soup kitchen that measures its success by the number of bellies fed rather than the number of people that don’t need it anymore, masquerading as a food security program that ends homelessness… …a family counseling program masquerading as a permanent supportive housing program… …a youth club masquerading as a youth housing program… …a bible study group masquerading as a housing help resource… …a homeless shelter masquerading as permanent housing… …a group of buildings and organizations lumped together in close geography masquerading as an integrated campus working in partnership… …a senior’s fellowship organization masquerading as a drop-in center… …a 211 community information line masquerading as coordinated access for the homeless service delivery system… If you are a homeless service provider I know what you should be. You should be the champions of housing. You should be focused on ending each individual’s or family’s homelessness first and foremost. That is your job. You exist in order to not exist. It isn’t about you…it is about the [...]

Aug 262013
Geez, Don’t Let a Few Little Facts Get in the Way of Your Perceptions of People on Welfare

Like me, maybe you have a few (ahem) “friends” on Facebook that post things that make you cringe. Lately, a few posts in particular have driven me to write this blog. I was going to try and just provide insights through comments on their posts, or send them a direct message, but figured this medium may do even better. I start by posting the memes that I have seen more than once in the last month, which tells me that if they are being shared with frequency, these are resounding with some people… In a nutshell, what’s wrong with these pictures? Several of the images racialize poverty. Truth is, most recipients are Caucasian. There is a perception that those that receive welfare have large families and an increasing number of children to maximize benefits. Truth is, most welfare recipients are single persons and very small families (the average is 1.8 children per household in fact for TANF…which coincidentally is almost the same as the national average; the average size is 2.4 when you consider all welfare benefits, which is a massive decline of family size of welfare receiving families since the 1960s). Somewhere along the way the stigma of being a substance user was attached to be on welfare. Truth is, most people with problematic substance use in our society do not receive welfare. And another inconvenient truth, it costs way, way more to test people on welfare (which is an intrusive violation, but I will park that for now) [...]

Aug 192013

Is your community trying to move towards common assessment as part of coordinated access? You should be. In response to inquiries from a few avid blog readers (thanks!) here are some questions you should ask when your organization/community is choosing an assessment and prioritization tool. 1. Is it grounded in evidence? There is no shortage of ideas on what may be a good thing to assess when a homeless person or family seeks services. Unfortunately, too many communities come up with their own list (sometimes LONG list) of things to assess without those ideas actually being grounded in evidence of what works, and the main currents of thought and practice in service delivery. That which we think and that which we know are often two totally different things. Your assessment tool should be grounded in knowledge and data, not unsubstantiated thoughts or feelings. 2. Has it been tested? Given the assessment tool informs which type and intensity of service an individual or family may be offered, it is important to make sure the tool actually does the things that the designers of the tool thought it should do in the first place. This requires extensive testing and feedback in trial versions of the assessment tool. It also requires testing the tool against other potential tools and the use of no tool at all. 3. Has it been independently evaluated? Researchers and developers involved with the tool do an incredible amount of leg work to get the tool off the ground. [...]

Aug 122013

As you read this I have literally gone fishing. I am in the middle of nowhere in Northern Ontario less than two hours from where I grew up. In fact I am on a small island in the middle of a lake that is only accessible by boat. There is no cell coverage where I am. My phone is off. My computer has to wait until Friday. All I am concentrating on until Friday is making sure my eldest son is having a good time, and his uncle, grandfather and cousin aren’t spinning him tales around the campfire that will keep him up for days. I wasn’t always this way. The thought of taking time off work used to create huge anxiety for me. When I used to lead a rather large street outreach and housing program I feared that there would be a huge client crisis or a big issue with one of my staff while I was away, or that the Mayor would need me and I would be unavailable and let him down. Not only would I fear taking vacation, I would keep my phone on all day, every day of the week. No matter what time someone tried to get a hold of me, I was on it. Every vibration of an email elicited the same response of grabbing to scan whom it was from and whether it demanded my attention. In my Blackberry days, I would even feel phantom vibrations on my hip when it [...]

Aug 052013

Since late in 2012 I have been doing some work with Crossroads Rhode Island. They are a large multi-service organization in Providence offering a wide range of services to meet a plethora of needs within one organization. From showers for people living rough through to housing, they have it covered. However, I am writing this blog not to outline Crossroads’ services, or to talk about the work I have had the privilege of doing with the organization. (Though I do like the organization quite a bit and could easily brag about them.) Nope – what I want to talk about are the three values that they use to drive their organization. There is something radically awesome about the power and simplicity of the three values they have: Safety – promoting an environment free from physical and emotional harm and ensuring a feeling of security and comfort to all. Respect – acknowledging the intrinsic worth of every person. Effectiveness – delivering services and managing the organization with efficiency, professionalism, innovation, and accountability. (To be clear, the organization developed these values completely independent of OrgCode.) I am especially enamored with Effectiveness as a value for an organization. To me, if an organization values Effectiveness it means they believe in doing things that are proven to work rather than relying on what “feels right”. When the value of Effectiveness is put into practice, it means that trying hard or meaning well is insufficient. As an employer, when Effectiveness is a value I think [...]