When the movement started towards communities developing 10 Year Plans to End Homelessness, I was skeptical. Not because I didn’t think having Plans was a good idea. They harnessed a lot of great community energy. They started a national conversation in a way that had been absent. They focused attention on the issue of chronic homelessness in a profoundly new way. My skepticism came from the fact that most Plans, generally, did not talk about how the staff on the frontline and the programs within agencies would be trained to change in order to be successful at helping people get access to housing and maintaining housing. The Plans had lots of talk about housing first, permanent supportive housing and the like, but they didn’t hone in on what I thought at the time – and have had confirmed over the past several years – that there was no investment of time or resources to help teach people to actually do the thing expected from the Plan.
If you tell a plumber that they are becoming an electrician overnight don’t be surprised if the house burns down.
Now I find myself in a number of communities working on coordinated access and common assessment to improve intake processes and connecting the right person/family to the right intervention at the right time. I really love this work. I think it is the right thing to do for individuals/families seeking service, to improve efficiencies in the delivery of services, and to move towards a collection of service providers functioning as a system of service delivery. Through this experience I have run into the situation more than a handful of times now where it is evident that service providers have never been taught the skills in order to appropriately serve the population they are supposed to be serving – or that they say they serve. The important goals of reducing the length of time people experience homelessness and reducing recidivism become dreams instead of realities if there is an absence of training to improve the skill base to allow this to happen.
I know that money is tight. However, professional development is not a luxury. It is a must if you want to reach your intended results. Otherwise – and I apologize if this sounds harsh – you are throwing good money after bad. You are doing the same things as before and expecting different results. Changes in your results of working towards ending homelessness may have more to do with luck than actual disciplined, sequenced and strategic changes in practice.
It seems just about every community that I travel to has one or more organization that wants to tell me they are the only ones that work with the “hardest to serve”. With the introduction of common assessment tools and program evaluations I have had the chance to look a little deeper into that proclamation. Time and again – with a handful of exceptions – I find that the people that organization is serving is actually no more acute than those served by other organizations. What becomes clear, though, is that the ones making the proclamation of working with the hardest to serve often have very little training or a professional development plan. No wonder the work seems harder.
Ask a person to make a chocolate soufflé without the proper ingredients, equipment or instructions and you get brown mush.
From time to time I actually find communities that have invested some of its scarce resources into training and professional development. I applaud that. But then I wish they had been more thoughtful about what training and which trainers. For example, some communities have invested in Motivational Interview training, but the trainer has only worked in controlled, therapeutic environments, rarely if ever with homeless people, and even more seldom chronically homeless people. I have encountered some other communities that have invested in case management training, but the trainers had never delivered a housing-support based case management program like Housing First (yes, the capital H and capital F type of Housing First) or Rapid Re-Housing. Or the trainers have loads of theory, but not enough practice oriented that has pragmatic application, so frontline workers say things like “It was interesting but I don’t know how to use it”. Or the community brought in an Assertive Community Treatment program guru, but there is no ACT program or the local ACT program(s) is not focused on serving homeless persons.
With all the increased talk and use of data over the past decade, it would seem that there has been disconnect in expectations and monitoring of programs with one of the essential elements of Performance Management 101 – the need to coach and train for success. Depending on the size of the Continuum of Care, I would argue that a good rule of thumb is 5-10% of the funding available in the year be made available for training. If people in the community don’t want to use the dollars for that purpose, they should use their fundraising efforts for the cause of professional development. While a one or two day training event can be a good kick-off, I encourage communities to have a complete professional development agenda for the entire year.
While a professional development agenda has to be based upon an analysis of local needs and strengths, these are the 10 subjects that most often we end up recommending, and who most benefits from attending:
- Core competencies and service orientation of Housing First and Rapid Re-Housing (frontline, supervisors, Executive Directors, local policy makers);
- The 5 Essential and Sequential Steps to housing stability for adults that have experienced chronic homelessness (frontline workers and supervisors);
- Housing-based case management (frontline workers and supervisors);
- Effective leadership and supervision to effectively end homelessness (supervisors, Executive Directors);
- Wellness and recovery (frontline workers);
- Assertive engagement in a persistent and friendly manner (frontline workers);
- Understanding assessment and how to use it to inform housing supports (frontline workers, supervisors – sometimes policy staff too);
- Driving performance improvements through data (supervisors, Executive Directors, policy makers);
- What it means to think and act like a system (Executive Directors, policy makers);
- Proactive crisis planning and risk minimization for effective service delivery (frontline workers, supervisors).