Staff Change as the Shelter Changes


I have the pleasure of working on some large scale shelter transformations these days. It is easy to say you are becoming a housing-focused shelter and something different to put into practice. The ideas, concepts and techniques are transferable across jurisdictions. That said, we are noticing a distinct patter in the reactions of existing shelter staff as they work through the transition over several months. It looks something like this (and I don’t know the author of this graphic, so don’t know who to attribute this bit of genius to):

The transformation of a shelter to become housing-focused is hardest to achieve with existing staff. Invariably, there are some people that self-select out of the organization. Then there are others who are genuinely curious and want to see how things unfold. Then there are others who have checked out, but stick around if you know what I am saying.




In some shelters you’d swear that being housing-focused was a different language where they have no frame of reference of how to engage effectively with shelter guests. Staff were good at quick conversations, handing out towels, breaking up fights, and ensuring the AA meeting goes off without a hitch, but have no clue how to talk about housing applications, prioritization, listings, or security deposits.


I know everything.


Get one person housed and some staff act as though they should get a Congressional Medal of Honor (or Order of Canada). There are quick wins in becoming housing-focused. The danger, though, is taking a handful of low-hanging acuity, getting them housed quickly (because they probably could have done it themselves), and thinking everything will go that smoothly for everyone else thereafter. One of the tell-tale dangers of this phase – you’ll assess anything that moves thinking there is a magic answer behind every score. Assessment scores is not the knowledge you actually need.


There’s more to this than I thought.


Start becoming housing-focused in one part of a shelter operation and in no time you are over your head in all of the things that need to change to be effective. The two most transformative are rewriting shelter expectations to be housing-focused, and altering your service-restriction/trespassing/barring policy to align with a strength-based, housing-focused approach to service delivery. Be prepared for a bunch of staff to quit (or at least want to) at this juncture. And one of the other tell-tale signs of this phase – you won’t want to assess anybody because you see the bottleneck you have created and wonder what the point is of putting people on waiting lists. As change starts, so too does the disillusionment and lack of trust in the vision.


I’m never going to understand this.


Then the day comes when the lightbulb goes off and you start to realize that things like your approach to diversion and intake is directly related to your success in getting people to exit the shelter in a timely fashion. And you appreciate that the building needs some renovations to be more aligned to trauma-informed practice and a housing orientation. You will find yourself questioning very form and every field in HMIS. On top of that, you realize much of what you have been doing with shelter guests for years has been all the wrong things – and there is a career crisis. Plus, you have been looking at all of the wrong data and doing funding applications all wrong. Some long-time shelter guest at this point will remark that they miss the good ol’ days, and waxing nostalgic you probably think they are on to something.


It’s starting to make sense.


When housing-focused approaches start to click, there is consistency in higher acuity people accessing housing through or apart from coordinated entry. Shelter guests are staying for a shorter period of time and most of the conversations with shelter guests are about housing rather than day to day transactions. The new staff that are coming on board are eager to get on with housing as many people as possible. You likely find yourself quizzical and sometimes downright giddy when looking at your monthly housing statistics and how far you’ve come, being flummoxed but determined to house those people that have alluded you up to this point.


Trust me. It’s complicated.


By the time you reach this stage, if you are still around, you find yourself cringing every time your boss tells a story of one of the people housed through your shelter. It sounds like a sample size of one, and while you are happy that your boss is so excited about housing people, they seem to forget how hard it was to get to this place and how many staff were lost in the process. On top of this, a whole bunch of staff that were kicking and screaming along the way are now acting like the biggest cheerleaders for being housing-focused – the homeless service industry equivalent of Holden Caulfield’s phonies.

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Three Aspects of Coordinated Entry

Many communities have worked hard on coordinated entry. This has been transformative in many communities. Side doors are closing. Access to housing with supports is becoming better defined. Priorities are being established at the community level. These are all good things.

But coordinated entry is just one part of the process. An important part, but not the whole picture. My fear is that so much effort has been placed upon entrythat communities are creating and generating wait lists to nowhere. That is a problem.

So, when we think about designing and implementing coordinated entry, we must also think of two other aspects of the process: coordinated passage, and, coordinated exit.

Coordinated passage is the art and science of journeying with the individual or family to take care of all of the tasks that make housing possible. Paperwork. Documentation. Identification. Income supports and benefits. All of these require careful and skilled navigation and an eye to administrative accountability and necessity. Rarely are these linear, short in duration to attain, or easy. But if someone or some family is entering your system but is not navigated through the system, something is wrong. You will end up with a number of names of people you wish you were housing but cannot because their administrative tasks are incomplete.

Coordinated exit is the prize at the end of the coordinated passage. It is the acquisition of a place to live. Once people are “paper ready” there has to be results in moving from homelessness to housing. The measure of success of coordinated entry is not how many people are on a list or assessed, it is how many people actually move into housing. Without outflow, the entire system gets gummed up. Many communities we work with have come to realize that they don’t teach real estate in social work school. There can be a different set of skills necessary to get housing units available at scale, especially in expensive rental markets with low vacancy rates. Having the right staff with the right skills to find units to ensure coordinated exit is critical.

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Reimagining Engagement and Roles for Volunteers and Donors During the Holiday Season

Since Giving Tuesday I imagine many of your organizations have been gladly accepting financial donations and the like. It is the time of year of giving, and for many non-profits, more money will come over in this stretch towards Christmas than any other time of the year. There will also be a seeming abundance of people wanting to volunteer or get involved in a toy drive or want to deliver Christmas hampers or serve Christmas dinner. Some of this may make sense to you; some of it will not. There is a madness to it all that repeats every single year that can seem overwhelming. And there are legitimate questions like, “Where is all this help the rest of the year?”

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Making Warm Handoffs Work

A warm handoff is a transition conducted between two members of the support team in the provision of homelessness and housing services. Usually the warm handoff (and the focus of this blog) occurs between the homelessness side of the system (outreach worker, shelter staff, navigator) and the housing side of the system (case manager, aftercare worker, follow-up worker, housing support specialist). That said, there are times when the warm handoff can occur between case managers (for example, a reshuffling of the caseload means the client is moved from one case manager to a new case manager). I want to explore ways in which the warm handoff can be improved upon for maximum success in the support process.

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8 Tips to Add More Harm Reduction Practices to Your Shelter

Harm reduction exists on a continuum. So, too, does the implementation of harm reduction practices in shelter. You can range from managed alcohol programs within shelter like the Shepherds of Good Hope in Ottawa (sometimes called Radical Harm Reduction) or smaller steps by providing access to shelter after having used alcohol or other drugs without precondition or things like breathalyzers.  I am a big fan of shelters like Alpha House in Calgary which is one of the preeminent wet shelters I have ever visited and has integrated harm reduction into all that they do, as well as specialized harm reduction programs within larger shelters, like the Riverfront program at the Calgary Drop-in Centre. Not every shelter is ready to immerse themselves into a managed alcohol program like the Shepherds of Good Hope or fully integrate harm reduction into all that they do like Alpha House, but there are some tips and practices that can be followed to add more harm reduction practice to your shelter. Here are eight:

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Gaining Input from Service Users: A New Opportunity

One of the challenges confronted by service providers is, “How do I get meaningful feedback from service users?”

Let’s assume first that you are a service provider that actually cares about what your service users think. You may have tried exit surveys or exit interviews. You may have tried sending follow up surveys to people once they moved into housing. If you are a shelter or drop-in center you may have tried consumer meetings and focus groups.

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Racial Equity and the VI-SPDAT

Some communities, especially on the West Coast, have noticed in their data and/or anecdotally have expressed concerns with racial equity and the VI-SPDAT. I am glad they reached out with their concerns as this is good dialogue to have. We should have a tool – and approaches to administering the tool – that are as free from bias and inequity as possible. The two major concerns expressed are, firstly, that non-white people do not score high enough in the VI-SPDAT, and secondly that PSH resources disproportionately go to white people.

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Eligibility Does NOT Equal Entitlement

Eligibility means the state of having the right to do or obtain something through satisfaction of the appropriate conditions  (my emphasis added).

Entitlement means the fact of having a right to something; the belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment  (again my emphasis added).

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So, You Think You're a Low Barrier Shelter...Let's Check

Hey all - sorry I have been stingy on the blog lately. I am back and will be here regularly for your reading pleasure.

The conversation goes something like this:

   Them: "We operate a low-barrier shelter."
   Me: "What makes it low-barrier?"
   Them: "We believe in Housing First."
   Me: "But what does that look like in practice?"

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Help Us Improve VI-SPDAT & SPDAT

We take the VI-SPDAT and SPDAT very seriously. Whether your community uses the VI-SPDAT (triage tool) and/or the SPDAT (assessment tool), we want to have your input as we go about making improvements to the next versions of the tools. Have your say through our survey which you can find here

Your input is vitally important. We will be looking at what you contribute along with what people with lived experience have to say, trainers have to say, the most current research has to say, and what experts in trauma, domestic violence, and anti-oppression have to say.

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