Using Data to Improve Your Hiring in Human Services

You are looking for really talented, compassionate, skilled, dedicated people. You know you are not going to be able to pay them a lot. And you don’t want there to be a lot of turnover.

You think the answer to this is to talk about how great your organization is, how they can join an exciting team, how they can contribute to helping those in need in your community.

You will hire a really keen person. They will work with you for less than a year. Then they will leave. And you will go through all the effort again of posting and hiring for the position.

Maybe, just maybe, if you had used data and transparency in your posting you’d end up hiring the right person for the job, being transparent about the demands of the job, and making sure they are up for the challenge before they get started.

Here is a mash-up of job descriptions I’ve helped provide some organizations in the homelessness services world over the past couple years. The result? Hiring people that are highly skilled and motivated who did not leave because the work was harder than they thought it would be.

(name of organization) is a national leader in working to end homelessness – and we want you to be part of our team to provide leadership in our emergency shelter if you:

  • believe every person that uses the shelter can and should achieve housing, regardless of presenting issues;
  • marry your compassion for helping people with intelligence and strategic problem solving to get individuals out of homelessness;
  • understand – but are not crippled by – the complexity of homelessness;
  • do not confuse opinions about homelessness with facts about homelessness;
  • motivate staff to share a vision of homelessness ended one person, one family at a time regardless of whatever issues they may have in their lives;
  • have a passion for creatively solving complicated issues;
  • can put the mission, vision and values of our organization into your day to day practice;
  • believe that shelters are a process, not a destination;
  • exude positivity and promote positive change;
  • can successfully manage programs and people when there is no clear right/wrong answer;
  • are persistent when staff or shelter users try to tell you that they cannot or do not want to get out of homelessness.

Here’s what we don’t want:

  • people that have pity or sympathy for homeless individuals (empathy is okay);
  • people with no experience in human services;
  • people that hate data;
  • people that think shelters and permanent housing are the same thing;
  • people that refuse to grow, learn and innovate on the job;
  • people that are judgmental or punitive in motivating change in others.

(name of organization)’s shelter has 86 different people under our roof each night. Approximately a third have been with us for greater than three months, approximately a third have been with us 1-3 months, and the remaining third less than a month. The average length of stay across all shelter users last year was 79 days per person. It is our target within the next year to get average lengths of stay to under 45 days per person, and to know for certain that at least 80% of the people no longer staying with us have moved into permanent housing (including reuniting with family when that is appropriate and safe) at the end of their stay in our shelter. Currently we only know for certain that 59% of our shelter users move into permanent housing, and this is unacceptable to us.

Here are other things you should know:

  • on average, in the course of any given month, more than half of our shelter users meet the HUD definition of chronic homelessness;
  • on average, more than 70% of the shelter users in our facility each night have stayed in another shelter in the city directly prior to staying in our shelter, and 8% were living outdoors directly prior to staying in our shelter;
  • on average, 18% of shelter users in our facility on any given night are tri-morbid (have a co-occurring chronic physical health issue, mental health issue and substance use disorder);
  • almost 15% of shelter user information in our Homeless Management Information System is incomplete;
  • the staff group of 24 people you will be supervising has an average of 2.3 year experience with us and 3.5 years of experience altogether working in the homelessness field, with over 70% having a degree in Social Work or comparable degree;
  • each week you will spend three hours on Thursday mornings meeting with the entire senior management team of our organization, because the shelter is one of 8 core program areas we operate;
  • your base salary will be $62,300 to start with incentives for meeting performance targets such as improved housing access and decreased lengths of stay in shelter;
  • you will be expected to spend 14 hours per month working directly alongside your line staff to see how she/he is performing and to monitor opportunities for operational improvements, and we expect at least half of these hours to be between the hours of 10pm and 7am.

The Big Picture: A Statewide Approach to Common Assessment

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:

  1.  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.
  2.  State funding sources are aligned with federal funding sources in the use of the same tool.
  3.  The State doesn’t have to try and make sense of whether different tools are showing different acuity levels or really showing the same thing – or how to even translate it all – because they are all using the same tool throughout the entire state.
  4.  There is one State sponsored approach to training and creating an infrastructure of sustainability rather than Continuums trying to figure it out on their own.
  5.  There is a strong data infrastructure to make sense of how people’s lives are impacted statewide. How someone’s life is changed in Northern Michigan can be measured and understood exactly the same way as how we talk about someone’s life changing in Detroit.
  6.  There is a long-term view and commitment to common assessment. Because the state is implementing it across multiple Departments and making it statewide, this isn’t a “flash in the pan” decision to do something just to meet a HUD requirement. This is a thoughtful, long-term approach with requisite processes in place to ensure effectiveness.
  7.  It doesn’t matter if a person or family moves from one CoC to the next to get services. Their acuity score can follow them and/or the approach to measuring acuity will be the same. Service shopping across CoC borders is neutered.
  8.  It increases consistency in how coordinated access occurs. While there is still tweaking of processes at the local level, how and when the assessment fits into the mix is normalized.
  9.  It is fair and transparent to all people that experience homelessness in the State. A person who is homeless is not advantaged or disadvantaged by what tool may be in place and/or the training that goes into it based upon where in the state they try to access services.
  10.  It allows us (OrgCode) to more strategically provide longer-term support and work closely at the local and state level to ensure alignment with training objectives and approach with policy, funding and program expectations.


It is a great privilege to be part of this initiative in Michigan and to help better assess and support individuals and families experiencing homelessness statewide. We see the benefits from a policy, program and funding perspective. And we look forward to seeing the great volume of data that is likely to demonstrate how programs can also be improved on a statewide basis to ensure the state is moving even closer towards ending homelessness.

6 Things I Learned in Australia

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 […] Read more »

The Three R’s of Mindset in Human Services and How Each One Impacts our Perspective and Approach

Whether it is direct service, working with community partners to improve the service system, government policy, or funding – you have to consider the three R’s of your mindset. Each one impacts your perspective and approach. One of the R’s is proven to get better results than the others – though it should be acknowledged that none of them are perfect. Retribution We need to get out of the mindset of retribution. Coercion, threats, intimidation, and/or undue pressure do not result in everlasting change, positive results, “buy-in”, trust or sustainable relationships. It also neutralizes the possibility of creating an opportunity for dialogue when there are divergent points of view. Reciprocity We need to get out of the mindset of reciprocity. Bargaining, paybacks, obligation through ingratiation, “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”, and/or trade-offs do not result in transparent decision-making. It also fails to take into account that agents involved […] Read more »


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 »


Welcome to today’s Latin lesson. “Post hoc ergo propter hoc” means “after it, therefore because of it”. It is the title of a West Wing episode from Season 1 (and you can watch the scene here where it is discussed). It also happens to be the sort of thing they teach you if you study logic and comes in handy if you love data and helping organizations improve services. In a nutshell, you can write up the formula like this: X happened, then Y happened Therefore, X caused Y You can also have people reverse elements of the equation. Let’s say it really sucks for Y to happen. In that case, if you avoid or prevent X then Y won’t occur. If you look just at the order of events rather than the influences on the events you can draw oodles of false conclusions. A temporal succession of events is […] Read more »

The Difference Between That Which We Think and That Which We Know Is One of the Most Important Distinctions To Be Made

Kathryn Schulz is a “wrongologist”, with a stellar ability to explain why we shouldn’t regret regret and provides some very credible and compelling thoughts on being wrong. I am a fan. Her book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error is a terrific read and if you have never seen her TED talks, I recommend both. One of her quotes which I have used over and over again because of the brilliance of it is, “The miracle of your mind isn’t that you can see the world as it is. It’s that you can see the world as it isn’t.” People make mistakes. They should. Theories need to be tested and will frequently be wrong or prove something unintended. Being wrong doesn’t make someone a bad person. Being wrong, however, can hinder our ability to be better at our jobs and in our lives when we fail to make […] Read more »

There’s A Difference Between Wanting to End Homelessness and Committing to End Homelessness

If you work in the homeless service sector you should have a very simple career goal – to put yourself out of a job. I have this belief that homeless and housing support services exist to end homelessness. They don’t exist to make people in human services feel good about themselves. They don’t exist to cleanse the consciousness of corporations through their philanthropy. They don’t exist to keep government bureaucracies humming along. There is a difference between wanting to end homelessness and committing to end homelessness. If you want to do something, you may or may not achieve it, and likely only under certain favorable conditions. If you commit to do something you will have steadfast fixity of purpose. When the conditions are unfavorable you will be the catalyst to actively change those conditions, remaining solution-focused all the while instead of accepting barriers as immovable, intractable problems that get in […] 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 »

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 »