Four Mottos

Here are the four mottos that matter to me in the work that we do, with a brief explanation of each:

“Great consultants. Lousy businesspeople.”

We have to make enough to pay our bills, but we absolutely have no desire to ever be rich doing this work. We are not motivated by money. We are motivated by making a difference. That’s why we give away so many of our tools. That’s why we do so many things at a discounted rate.

“Training that doesn’t suck.”

A trainer that understands adult learning knows that any good training combines many different approaches. Here are my three foundations to training:

1. Training should be pragmatic for what you do.

If your trainer doesn’t get “it” then it will just be one gigantic snooze-fest. If you don’t actually learn something you can immediately put into practice it is a waste of time. Let me give you an example of a pet peeve – lots of organizations realize the value of knowing Motivational Interviewing, but are not taught MI by someone that has experience working with homeless or precariously housed people in either a homeless or permanent supportive housing setting. So many of their approaches assume a clinical or quasi-clinical setting, which seems like the antithesis of the sort of environment you function in on  a daily basis.

2. Training should be grounded in theory and evidence.

If your trainer has not read a peer reviewed journal article on the subject matter they are training you on in the last 10 years, chances are they have missed some relevant advances in the field. Your trainer should know why they are training you on the things they are training you on.

3. Training should be both educational and entertaining.

To me it is simple: if you are entertained at the same time you are learning you are more likely to put down your defenses and be engaged with the subject matters. You are also more likely to want additional training in the future if the trainer didn’t bore you to tears.

“Catalysts for better outcomes.”

We should be able to change behavior, knowledge, skills, attitudes, and/or results through our work. It should have a lasting impact. We never want to be the people who parachute in, look at your watch and tell you what time it is. Our job is to challenge and change.

“Hip and nerdy. Not your average consultants.”

If people ever think of OrgCode as just another consulting firm, we have failed. Our research should be different than what you have experienced before. Our reports should be different than what you have experienced before. Our training should be different than what you have experienced before. Same thing with our planning, facilitation, engagement strategies, charrettes, keynotes and materials. The world has lots of “average”. We believe you deserve something better than average. If we are just “the world’s okayest” consultants, we suck.

True Currency in a Bankrupt World: A Discussion of Approaches to Substance Use

“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” – Lester Bangs (Spoken by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the movie Almost Famous)

Let’s talk about something un-cool to talk about in most circles – substance dependency. So much has been talked about the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Insights like this one from Russell Brand talked of how the death was inevitable in how drug laws are created and enforced. This one from the Washington Post suggests the death points to a broader opioid epidemic. Counter point to this mourn-ography (as Brand puts it) look at the sensationalism and mockery of Rob Ford, known in Late Night circles as “Toronto’s Crack Smoking Mayor”.

In the former (Hoffman) people see tragedy; in the later (Ford) people see buffoonery. A respected actor with a rather large body of work is a loss; the mayor of North America’s fourth largest city using drugs is spectacle.

As I have blogged about previously, required abstinence is not the way to go. There is not a strong relationship between sobriety and housing retention. It has been suggested, however, that somehow it means I encourage or promote drug use. I don’t. I believe the evidence that security of housing is helpful for assisting people in reducing or stopping their substance use. And, I believe in a four-pronged approach to helping programs and communities address the matter of drugs more holistically:

  1. Education
  2. Enforcement
  3. Harm Reduction
  4. Treatment

On the matter of education, I think we need to broaden awareness of what drugs are prevalent in which communities. We need to, from a young age, increase awareness of substances and their impacts without a simplistic “Just say no” approach that glosses over the pervasive and entrenched position that drugs have in our society. I would also urge people to become more educated on the broad range of evidence that supports different approaches to addressing substance use in communities.

For example, take a look at the research findings from InSite – the Safe Injection Site in Vancouver. There will always be a place for enforcement when it comes to drugs, but I think as a society we need to ask ourselves about the best approach to doing so.  I really like this piece by Erik Luna where he quite rightly outlines that mandatory minimums do not meet the generally accepted criteria of law – meeting neither the goals of punishment nor consequentialist goals of deterrence.

So where is the place for enforcement? When organized crime is attached to the drug trade, that is an obvious one to me. When minors are impacted, that is argument for another. When any individual is exploited by the drug trade, including sexual exploitation, I believe that is another reason for enforcement.  Punishing the substance user? That is in essence punishing someone for having a health condition.

If we take criminality of the drug discussion out of the equation (which I appreciate is difficult because of how interwoven the drug trade is to often harmful and dangerous criminal behavior), we can look at substances from a health perspective. And when we embrace that perspective we can more clearly see the opportunities for harm reduction and treatment. There is a place for both. It is not either/or.

First, let’s consider harm reduction. While harm reduction is interpreted and considered from many different perspectives, I would urge people to consider it from a person-centered point of view within a broader societal context. (Person focusing outward, not society focusing inward.) Harm reduction aims to decrease adverse health, economics and social consequences of substance use without requiring abstinence or cessation of any sort. Harm reduction is achieved through action and policy. Harm reduction considers the broader needs and impacts of substance use on society when supporting the individual. Through harm reduction, we should expect to see fewer interactions with emergency health services and police as a result of drug offences. We should expect to see fewer upset communities and neighbors as a result of behaviors that stem from substance use. We should see improved health and less destructive behaviors on the personal level. It is absolutely incorrect to think that harm reduction embraces use at all costs. It is a myth to think that all harm reduction efforts are a guise to legalize all substances in all forms. It is also incorrect to think that harm reduction enables use, as the evidence demonstrates that the likes of wet housing debunks the enabling hypothesis when you look at rates and types of substance use, and further evidence shows that people are more likely to decrease or stop substance use once they have security of housing. I believe that housing in and of itself is often a form of harm reduction.

Now let’s consider treatment. When treatment is mandatory in order to use a service or access housing, then housing or service becomes the reward of treatment. The problem with this, as I have discussed in other blogs – and as you can research yourself in the evidence – is that rates of treatment success are low. It isn’t that we shouldn’t encourage people to seek treatment and support people that do – we can and we should – but we should never require treatment in order to access housing or services. When treatment is considered we must also do so patiently and from an informed perspective. Treatment is not one size fits all – a treatment that worked for one person is not guaranteed to work for another. The scope and style of treatment should be matched to a person’s experience and personality. Treatment should make sense relative to a person’s housing situation and her/his social network. Treatment comes with a range of emotions – from guilt of needing it to elation of how it helps curb substance use. When treatment doesn’t work out there can also be a range of emotions. And we also need to have informed discussions about treatment with people that may want it or benefit from it, rather than jumping on a treatment bandwagon just because the person is upset with their substance use or is trying to placate someone else by going to treatment.

Substance dependency may be un-cool to talk about. But it is a conversation we need to have if we are truly going to offer a range of approaches to properly confront a complex social issue.  And as un-cool as it is to talk about, if we don’t talk about substances when we talk about housing for people with complex and co-occurring issues, there will be a large number of people remaining homeless for no reason other than they didn’t fit a pervasive view of substance use and what should be done about it, rather than considering a range of approaches.

Any Approach to Ending Homelessness Needs Shelters to be Awesome

Ending homelessness is not anti-shelter. In fact, in many instances ending homelessness starts with shelter. Let me put this in a system context. First of all, your community (or your organization if you are a small shelter in a smaller or more rural setting) needs to start by keeping as many people out of shelter as possible when it is safe and appropriate to do so. Great shelter services start with seeing diversion as a service – not a denial of service. Next you need to understand who the people are that are seeking shelter. They’ll fit into one of three groups: people using shelter for the first time in his/her life; people with a history of episodic use; people that rely on shelters on almost a daily basis (perhaps when they are not in hospital or jail). Regardless of the group, the emphasis on getting out of shelter and […] Read more »

10 Things I Learned this Year: Part Two

Last week, the blog looked at the first five things I learned this year. If you want to, you can get caught up by reading that blog first. Or you can just launch into items 6 through 10 of the 10 things I learned this year. 6.     Some communities get so much technical assistance that it smothers and cripples them. As the good folks at (they create de-motivational posters) suggest, there can be great money to be made in prolonging a problem. In my opinion, technical assistance is a resource that should not be squandered, but there are some communities deemed to be such high need that they get overwhelmed with technical assistance and no strategic support to hold it together in a way that makes any sense. The problem in those instances isn’t an absence of support. It is an absence of thoughtful, sequenced, strategic, targeted supports. And […] Read more »

Why People Don’t Believe the Facts

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 […] Read more »

Wellness and Recovery in Housing Support – Part 2 of 4

I have a very personal connection to wellness and recovery as it relates to mental illness. If you haven’t read my older blog on living with depression, you can read it here. Or if you want to watch my video blog on mental illness and stereotypes that emerged in the wake of Sandy Hook, you can watch that here. Because I have a personal connection to wellness and recovery, I suppose it should come as no surprise that it is one of my favorite areas to provide training to housing case managers, and to help homeless serving agencies truly understand and embrace. This is a four-part blog that examines wellness and recovery in the process of supporting people in housing, and working to prevent homelessness from happening again to that person/family. In Part Two of this blog series on Wellness and Recovery, I want to focus on what exactly it […] Read more »

2013: The Year to Stop Doing Certain Things in Order to Strengthen the Resolve to Ending Homelessness

In 2012 I have been fortunate enough to spend time in 37 different communities that are trying to end homelessness. When you include attendees at conferences and webinars, that number expands into hundreds of communities. Then there are all of the cities that other OrgCode team members have been too that I never had the privilege to get to. I like to say we get around, but in a good way. More than other years, I am struck by certain things I wish many communities would STOP doing come 2013 and wanted to take this opportunity to share some of these with you. There is loads of potential for positives here. Here is the list to reflect upon: Stop resisting change. Trust the long-term potential of great ideas. Change, itself, is inevitable. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard. Sure we like to romanticize caterpillars becoming butterflies, but the whole process […] Read more »

Mental Illness — Language & Perceptions

I am writing this blog on the day of the tragic shooting deaths of 20 children and eight adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Like so many incidents over the past year (and before), this is an atrocious event that leaves us searching for answers. I am experiencing a mixture of both sympathy and utter disgust. But, I am also feeling anger towards the extensive media coverage that was generated by the event. In the papers, blogs, news coverage, television discussion, etc. – I have repeatedly heard the mental status of the shooter reported in the most derogatory manner. It may well be that the compromised wellness of the 20 year-old, young adult who perpetrated the shooting contributed to his decision and actions. But, all mental illnesses are not the same. It is like saying that all physical illnesses are the same and clearly they are […] Read more »

“We are Not Venture Capitalists”

This is a quote written on a white board in the office of a Continuum of Care that I am doing some work with. I saw it on a recent visit and loved it. In some way, shape or form I think all of us that have worked as a funder in our career have had similar experiences with people calling out of the blue looking for money to open a shelter or start an outreach program or begin a meal program or build housing or start a drop-in or something similar. When I was a funder working in government it would seem that once or more per month I’d get a call or email from some organization or person I had never heard of seeking funds for a housing or homeless program. I don’t know enough about the people who make these calls out of the blue to form […] Read more »

The 5 Essential and Sequential Elements

In the fourth part of the series we look at the sequence of events that needs to occur for housing programs to be successful. PART FOUR: The 5 Essential and Sequential Elements Regardless of the presenting needs and complexity of issues, housing programs always function best when housing is the first task to focus on. Throughout my travels I have seen far too great an emphasis on trying to get a case plan in place prior to getting someone housed…or getting the client into treatment first…or getting the client compliant with medication first – and I could go on. It doesn’t matter if you are a fan of Housing First or not – what is critically clear through the evaluations we have performed and my years of professional practice is that housing has to be the first thing worked on or else the rest of the tasks are not going […] Read more »