Apr 142014

Recently in a community I had a well-established street outreach provider ask me how they can help explain their importance now that coordinated access was taking shape in the city. It seems that with the infrastructure of coordinated access taking root, the street outreach provider was facing questions from its primary funder of whether it should continue to exist. The short answer is that yes, I think that street outreach should exist in a city that has coordinated access. Now a longer answer… Street outreach has merit as a service when it is connecting people to long-term solutions to her/his homelessness. Street outreach, in my opinion, has little merit if it just about providing food or socks or clothing or sleeping bags or prayer. Yes, those things can meet immediate needs, but it doesn’t solve the problem of having someone sleep outdoors, in whatever location they may be in. So, I think street outreach should continue to be funded in communities with coordinated access if there is a housing-focus to the street outreach. To use an analogy that seemed to work well in a training I recently did with an outreach provider, street outreach is to coordinated access as fluffers are to the adult film industry. Yes, the (ahem) “money shot” (housing in the case of coordinated access) is the conclusion that is remembered, but it was only made possible because of everything that occurred behind the scenes up to that point that no one ever sees. The things street [...]

Apr 072014

Assessing for the sake of assessing sucks. That isn’t coordinated access. That is a bureaucratic response (and not just government) to the issue that solves nothing. Recently I was in a community that has been putting coordinated access into place over the last few months. In an effort to get community buy-in, their weekly meeting of housing providers allows for over-ride of assessment if the person is deemed to be too complex. Want to guess what is happening? They have a list of dozens of names of people with higher acuity that no housing provider is stepping up to house. Creating waiting lists of people with complex issues instead of solving their homelessness is not about ending homelessness. It is a waiting list to nowhere. Who are these people on the waiting list? Yes, they all have higher acuity. To a person they have co-occurring, complex issues across quite a spectrum – substance use, mental health issues, physical health issues, involvement in high risk and exploitive situations, numerous interactions with emergency services, and more. But in addition to that, they are almost exclusively people that have been housed several times before. They are the waiting list of people waiting to be re-housed…people that previous attempts at housing have broken down because of partying, guests, drug use, noise complaints, loneliness, paranoia, etc. If we want to truly end homelessness this is the exact population we need to figure out not only how to house, but how to keep housed. If we [...]

Mar 312014

I am writing this about halfway through the first leg of the statewide SPDAT tour of Michigan. Michigan, in all her VAST glory, has joined a number of states and provinces that have decided that they want the same common assessment tool used across the entire State. Not just a community-by-community decision – a full, statewide implementation. Every Continuum of Care…all programs that get funding through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, Department of Human Services or Department of Community Health…all regions…all types of communities (urban, rural, remote) – all using the exact same tool. This was the State’s idea. OrgCode didn’t push it or sell them on the idea. And while they were not the first to go this route (hello forward thinking Newfoundland & Labrador), we applaud the State and the handful of other states and provinces that have gone this direction. We also hope that other States and Provinces considering going this route pay close attention. It is a great idea to see the Big Picture and go statewide (or province wide) with implementation of the same common assessment tool. Here’s 10 reasons why:  Different funding sources doing work with the same population all work using the same language and approach to assessing needs, decreasing conflict across departments or funding sources.  State funding sources are aligned with federal funding sources in the use of the same tool.  The State doesn’t have to try and make sense of whether different tools are showing different acuity levels or really [...]

Feb 242014
The Tallest Blade of Grass is the First to be Cut by the Lawnmower

(Thanks to B for inspiring this blog. Also, as an aside, if you love the Tallest Blade expression, I recommend getting the demotivational poster from despair.com…which is a spin on the Russian proverb of the tallest blade being the first to succumb to the scythe. Also, if you’d rather watch me rant about this blog instead of reading it or in addition to reading, you can see it here.) So true. This blog is dedicated to the early adopters…to the brave who step out from the status quo…to the ones that try instead of staying on the sidelines and critiquing…to the organizations that stepped out from the pack only to be cut down by other organizations…to the great ideas for social change squelched by misinformed elected representatives. If you have anything worth doing, chances are you have naysayers. I have seen it so often over the past decade of my life that I come to expect that when naysayers show up it is a sign the right thing is happening. Maybe people try to cut the Tallest Blade out of fear. Go out on a limb and you attract attention to the mediocrity of others. Others will wonder why they aren’t capable of doing more. Maybe people try to cut the Tallest Blade out of empathy. Perhaps they once tried to reach out in a new direction and felt the pain of being non-conformity by being ridiculed by others and now try to shield others from the same pain. Maybe [...]

Feb 102014

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 into housing should be the same. But, the strategies to achieve that goal will be different. For example, most first time users of a shelter will get out with a very minimal amount of service or no services at all, whereas chronic users may need more in-depth supports to effectively get out of shelter and into housing. Right size your approach based upon need, not one-size fits all. Look carefully at the programming offered within the shelter. The intent of shelter is not to heal or fix people – it is to provide shelter. Remarkably imperfect people are great at [...]

Jan 272014

Two stories in the news caught my eye over the past little while: this one where a Montreal police officer was filmed threatening to tie a homeless man to a pole in the freezing cold; and this one where a judge in Prince Edward Island put a homeless man in jail for the night because there was not enough space in the hospital where she felt he would be better served. Sure, they both came from Canada, but they are likely very relevant to what is happening in your community.   On the one hand, we see shortcomings in law enforcement in engaging effectively and humanely with homeless persons. Unfortunately, it paints many in police forces in a similar light, which is unfair and untrue. In my travels I have been fortunate to see the likes of the Grand Junction, Colorado police be very proactive in working with homeless people; hands-on street outreach by the likes of Deputy Steven Donaldson in the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (Tampa) who achieves amazing things in helping homeless folks access housing and resources to stay housed; police working well with street outreach like the DOAP Team at Alpha House in Calgary. I’d like to think that officers like the one in Montreal are the exception, not the norm. But maybe that is wishful thinking. The horror stories about police officers I have heard in my travels would fill a book.   On the other hand, we see the justice system trying to address what, [...]

Jan 132014

From December 16-21, 2013 I spent time with Micah Projects in Brisbane, Australia. It was a fabulous opportunity to share the SPDAT with another community, as well as informally take in homelessness services first hand in another part of the world. Here are six things I took away from that trip: 1. Mobile Government Benefit Workers Is Possible I have encountered several communities in North America that have worked hard to get streamlined access to government benefit offices to get income supports. I have seen income support staff attend weekly case conferences and offer helpful commentary. And now I have seen what I thought was only a dream actually happen. Centrelink is an agency of the Department of Human Services. They actually have staff with laptops that go out to locations where homeless people are (in this instance a food program where there was also outreach) and have the ability to do applications, amend benefits, make notes and approve income supports. Imagine a person in your community in charge of public benefits sitting on a ledge in a park with laptop perched on her knees with a homeless person sitting beside her, and her having the ability to pull up his file, amend information, and approve a payment to him to be picked up the same afternoon. This all was happening before my eyes before 7am. Skull blown. 2. Homelessness is Homelessness and the Cure is the Same No matter where I go in Canada or the United States I [...]

Dec 162013

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 despair.com (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 we also have to be careful that some TA is not creeping into other program areas that are outside the mandate. It is not the responsibility of the TA to resolve this; it is the responsibility of those that pay for the TA to get their act together. 7.     Some of the most innovative and effective things are happening in places that are not in the national/international spotlight. Medicine Hat has the best assessor on the planet in Jeff Standell. Ever heard of him or Medicine Hat? You should. I learn something from him every time we talk. Ever heard [...]

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 [...]

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, [...]

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 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 [...]

Jul 292013

Every summer, for almost a decade now, the Conference on Ending Homelessness put together by the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington, DC has been a highlight for me. It has become a tradition. It reinvigorates me. It teaches me. It reminds me why we do this work – day in and day out. There is no way to fully capture in this blog everything that was discussed at the conference. If you search the hash tag #naeh13 you can see the thread of some of the most dominant themes by some rather prolific tweeters. In this blog, I wanted to reflect on the top three things that I took away from the conference this year – which may also be of interest to those unable to attend: 1. Success is possible. It is inspiring to see the success of communities like New Orleans on track to end chronic homelessness. It is invigorating to see the results of the 100K Homes campaign, especially the 43 communities in the 2.5% club. It is refreshing to hear how communities like Grand Rapids and Cleveland made the necessary, but difficult, decisions to properly coordinate access into their homeless service delivery system. It is awesome to hear how organizations like UMOM in Phoenix transformed their resources to focus on serving people with higher acuity and many barriers to housing stability. And I could go on. For anyone who feels that the job of working to end homelessness is an impossible task, take the [...]