10 Things I Learned this Year: Part One

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:

  1. Yes, I have super duper airmile-frequent-flyer-point status.
  2. No, I don’t hate travelling, but every airport, restaurant and hotel starts to look the same after a while – with a few exceptions.
  3. Of all the places I have been, I love where you live best.
  4. I parent through FaceTime.
  5. 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 sex. Everyone talks about it. No one really knows how to do it. Everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it.

No organization or community has this thing totally figured out. When people ask me “Where should I go to see it really working?” I don’t have an answer. I can point to dozens of amazing things that are happening in many different cities and counties and provinces/states, but no one place has put the full package together. I think this has happened in large part because:

  • we have pumped up the rhetoric of ending homelessness without communities taking the time to actually articulate what it means to “end homelessness”;
  • we have created an environment where organizations and communities that are amazingly non-judgmental with the people they serve are overwhelmingly judgmental with each other;
  • like teenage sex, if you bring in an experienced person to show the ropes and lessons learned from other places, they get labeled and shamed rather than accepted and learned from;
  • too many communities have never updated their plan to end homelessness to incorporate lessons learned and new strategies, and are clinging to a road map that is dangerously out of touch with the new reality so much so that the Plan has become irrelevant;
  • a lot of the forums where people get together are about sharing information, not about teaching people how to end homelessness. Frankly, I have been to more conferences about homelessness than most people and a lot of them do not provide substance that help people leave and put practices into their operations that will make a difference;
  • most places think they are so different from other places that proven practices elsewhere are somehow not going to be applicable to them (HINT: housing ends homelessness)

2. People want change. They just want someone else to change.

I find there is a strong appetite for change and making program improvements. What I have seen a lot of, though, is organizations or senior managers of organizations waiting for someone else to change first. Leadership can mean making the necessary leap into the dark and act without the benefit of having experience.

And while change seems to (finally) be seen as inevitable, never underestimate an organization’s desire for self-preservation. Funding going down has been written on the wall just about everywhere this year. Instead of digging deep to have the internal conversation about making sure the programs being offered are the best to be offered across the community from the end users perspective, what I have seen time and again is agency posturing and preparation to keep on doing what they have always done, effectiveness be damned.

3. It ain’t a competition to see who ends homelessness first.

While competition may get people initially motivated, what I am increasingly seeing is people turned off by competition. Getting to zero chronically homeless people first in your community actually means nothing. Honest. And if we keep that mentality I can assure you there are not a bunch of communities saying “We’re number two! We’re number two!” They stop or they don’t care or there is no timeline at all.

The factors in each community (availability of vouchers, availability of housing stock, funding, experience and expertise of service providers, government context, leadership, etc.) are SO diverse that unless you factored each one into the equation competing in the first place is pointless.

What we need is a common, structured narrative that keeps us collectively focused around the world on effective strategies that are proven to ending homelessness. We need to get into a mindset of sharing this information willingly. It doesn’t matter who is first – it matters more who is last and how long it takes to collectively get there.

4. We need to focus more on keeping people housed and changing people’s lives, not just getting them housed.

I have learned that too many communities are focused on getting people housed quickly and burning up a lot of resources to do so without investing in the back-end to actually keep people housed. It is very limiting to set into motion a local race to get people housed quickly if: a) you aren’t housing the people that most need it; and, b) there are not the supports necessary to keep people housed.

The measure of success is NOT how many people you house. It is how many people stay housed and have her/his life changed positively through the experience. Ours is NOT a quantity industry; it is a quality industry.

Let us be clear: getting people housed is an output; keeping people housed is an outcome.

And for everyone that is interested in the cost saving part of ending homelessness, it comes from keeping people housed and away from those more costly services on an ONGOING basis. We are not talking about temporary reprieves in service use patterns. We are talking about everlasting CHANGE.

Most often because we are talking about working with a population with complex and co-occurring needs, this means working with a small group intensely, not a large group peripherally.

5. Assessments work…when they are grounded in evidence.

It is entirely possible to structure your service community around a common assessment. I have seen that happen many times this year, and I have seen incredible changes in service delivery when that happens. I have seen communities start to use the data from the assessments to change conversations around service planning and investments in service delivery.

And I have also seen communities that insist on using a tool they made up that has no evidence base to support it. A couple communities that come to mind are ones that brag about being close to ending homelessness. But let’s be clear: while they may be about to house all the people that meet a federal definition of chronic homelessness, that does not mean – or come close to meaning – that all people with acute needs have been housed in their community. Nor does it mean that the people most in need of support and housing resources are in their support and housing programs.

This year has taught me, through data collected in assessments, that many of the most acute homeless people in communities do NOT meet a federal criteria for chronic homelessness.

You are reading 10 Things I Learned in 2013 Read more from this series of articles.

  • 10 Things I Learned this Year: Part One

5 Internal Thoughts of Program Leaders

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 even better things for all the people that are served by your organization. And while you were exhausted in all those years in the trenches, there is something that is missing in the day to day routine of supervising people instead of interacting with end users of your organization’s services. Some days the boss wishes they weren’t the boss anymore and were right back up to their eyeballs in interacting with service users.

2. “I wish people knew how to solve their own problems.”

Pretty much everyone in a supervisory position knows that part of their job is going to be managing difficult situations or navigating new terrain, along with settling conflicts. But managing people is not always the reason people were attracted to supervision and can really wear a supervisor down. Every one I connected with wished their staff team spent more time trying to solve their own problems and less time dumping the problem on the supervisor’s lap to be solved for them.

3. “I don’t have this all figured out…at least not all the time.”

Supervisors are rarely in a position where they can be candid with their staff and say “I don’t know” and not end up being eaten alive, losing the trust and confidence of the team, or even losing their job. While staff members may second guess decisions made or even think the boss has her/his head stuck up their butt on some matters, they at least think the boss has a plan. What has become clear in these conversations is that a lot of the time supervisors don’t have the answers to problems or situations that their staff thinks that they have. And sometimes that is very scary.

4. “I am lonely.”

You have no doubt heard that things are lonely at the top. Turns out they are lonely in the middle to. You can be friendly with your staff, but they aren’t your friends. And you can’t always turn to your own boss out of fear of them thinking you don’t know how to be competent at your job. And so it would seem a lot of supervisors acknowledge their own loneliness without having an outlet for it. Plus, as a supervisor you know some of the candid details of the inner-workings of the organization like financial and legal stuff that you can’t share with any of the people that report to you and which you spend the bulk of your day with, so there is no capacity to process it with other people. And on top of all that, it is lonely to know that people that report to you are likely bad-mouthing or second-guessing you…at least some of the time.

5. “I don’t make as much money as you think I do.”

Supervisors that I spoke with are struggling to pay their bills and get by each month not unlike their own staff. They are not making obscene gobs of cash more than the people that report to them. But they point out that when there is any sort of staff event or a chat over a coffee or an accepted lunch invitation by staff there always seems to be an expectation that they will pick up the tab.


Dedicated to my pal Andy Burns who started a rather hilarious Facebook chat on how the next person who used the phrase “take it to the next level” was going to get punched in the taco. Once communities started the job of organizing homeless and housing programs to operate services like a system instead of a collection of projects/programs, it has invited business jargon into human services unlike anything I have ever seen.  What am I talking about? I’m talking about a data-driven paradigm shift to create a win-win in the interface between the service users and providers. After some blue skying about how to make the process run smoother, what most communities found is that they had to double back to the parking lot to take another look for the obvious – assuming they still had the bandwidth to do so and leaving the kimono open didn’t reveal that […] Read more »

Sobriety is NOT a Precondition for Housing Success – Look at the Facts

Once people hit the age of majority, they are entitled to drink legally. Everyone can have their own opinions about their own consumption. These opinions may be based upon their personal values, religious beliefs, upbringing or whatever. BUT – making sobriety a precondition for assisting a person who is homeless for accessing a housing program is egregiously misguided. Let us look at 8 facts… More adults consume alcohol than adults that do not [this Gallup Poll shows 67% of Americans consume alcohol, for example] Most adults that consume alcohol or other drugs never experience homelessness, even when their use may be considered to be problematic or substance abuse Even for those individuals that choose to access treatment for substance use, there is no universally accepted definition for what constitutes rehabilitation or treatment [and here is a great opinion piece from Time Magazine that discusses that very issue in the article] […] Read more »

Does Everybody that Experiences Chronic Homelessness Need Permanent Supportive Housing?

I have heard many well-intentioned service providers speak of Permanent Supportive Housing as the only housing option for persons that have experienced chronic homelessness. Permanent Supportive Housing is an important housing option for all communities to have, and many persons that have experienced chronic homelessness may choose this option. But let me repeat: may choose this option. Let us also be clear about chronic homelessness and use the HUD definition: An unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more OR has had at least four (4) episodes of homelessness in the past three (3) years. The individual must have been on the streets or in an emergency shelter (not transitional housing) during these episodes. Where there is error is thinking that Permanent Supportive Housing, whether it is through a scattered-site model of supports or a congregate model of supports, is […] Read more »

Back to Basics – What Exactly is Housing First & Rapid Re-Housing?

A lot of the time I find “Housing First” and “Rapid Re-Housing” to be misused terms. Below I briefly outline the definitions and service components to each. When asked to assist organizations or communities realign their service delivery to be more effective or to evaluate their housing programs, this is the understanding of Housing First and Rapid Re-Housing that I try to generate awareness of in the community. As this is a blog and not a two or three day training seminar, I am focusing on hitting the high points. (Maybe some day I will find a publisher that will take me on to write the more exhaustive description, program examples, etc – but I digress.) As a philosophy housing first (intentionally a lower case “h” and lower case “f”) focuses on any attempt to help people who have experienced homelessness to access housing before providing assistance and support with […] Read more »

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen & Gentlewomen

We’re winding down another year here at OrgCode. Heck, we’re even going to shut the door and turn off the phones for a week between Christmas and the New Year and that will be a first since we re-booted the company in Q4 2009. God rest us merry gentlemen and gentlewomen. It’s hard to believe that it has been two years since John Whitesell and I shook hands to grab the reins of OrgCode together – and a real honor for me given John had been leading the company as Managing Director for over 25 years. Taking a retrospective gander at 2011 there are some things that stand out for me as great opportunities as well as lessons learned. They are: Our professional integrity remains intact. We truly want to be catalysts for better outcomes and when we were challenged in a “bait and switch” RFP to be the mouthpiece […] Read more »

Professional Works Gets Professional Results

PART EIGHT: Professional Works Gets Professional Results Successful housing programs have a professional orientation. Well-trained staff deliver the housing program. Successful housing programs tend not to be those operated in a charity context where “well intentioned” is sufficient to get the job done. There is too much at stake, and generally too much complexity for a layperson without training to help a client achieve long-term sustainability. I am not anti-charity. There is a time and place for it. And in fact it is often charitable organizations that hire the professional staff to deliver the housing program. The mistake, however, is when untrained staff are directly involved in client interactions. Truth is, it can do more harm than good. With the properly trained staff, housing programs get better outcomes. Here are some of the essential ingredients for ensuring your housing program is provided by professionals who get professional results. Start with […] Read more »

Helping Landlords Help You

PART FIVE: Helping Landlords Help You There should be a range of housing options for clients of your housing program to consider. In the best of circumstances this will include everything from permanent supportive housing to private market housing (with or without vouchers or rent supplements) and public/social housing. It will hopefully include a wide variety of units from multi-unit residential buildings to suites in the secondary market like basement suites or rented houses. It may also include the likes of well-maintained and managed rooming houses or boarding homes. And I could go on with the diverse types of housing. The key is to have a range of options that clients can CHOOSE from. Choice is fundamental to housing program success. If your organization does housing placements instead of offering housing choices, you are missing an important part of program success. In one research study it found that clients who […] 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 »