2013 National Alliance to End Homelessness Conference: The Top 3 Things I Took Away from This Summer’s Conference

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 time to look at those that are seeing success. But I should point out that each of these communities had to make tough choices to not provide business as usual. Success came from doing things differently – not doing the same things but expecting different results.

2. There is still confusion of some key concepts and terms

It is unfortunate – but an opportunity for improvement – to help people get greater clarity on several key concepts and terms: Housing First; Rapid Re-Housing; Prevention; Diversion; Acuity; Assessment; Collaboration; Case Management; Permanent Supportive Housing. For each of these, I encountered it used incorrectly on more than one occasion. If we are going to move forward collectively in the pursuit of ending homelessness, I think it will be important to all get on the same page when it comes to the concepts and terms used quite frequently. If we aren’t all on the same page, chances are we will think we are talking about the same things when we are not, or drawing upon a body of evidence and data in an incomplete or incorrect manner.

While I have addressed many of these in blogs and videos on our website, I think a consolidated glossary would probably be helpful too. I should really get on that.

3. Good data results in good decisions

The conference reinforced the importance of data many, many times. Data will only continue to become more important for decision-making as funding remains stagnant or decreases. And it is becoming more and more important for philanthropic investments.

It was encouraging to see communities like Tulsa use data so effectively for increasing the housing stock while also demonstrating social return on investment. It was excellent to see the likes of San Francisco demonstrate, through data, the relationship between the child welfare system and homelessness – and when the support intervention may work best. It was helpful to see how USICH and HUD both shared data to demonstrate where there has been effectiveness, and where improvements still need to be made.


It is a real delight to attend the Alliance conferences and learn. The next conference focuses on homeless youth and families and is being held in New Orleans in February. Stay tuned to endhomelessness.org to get more information – it is time and scarce money well invested!

Generating Data is Outstripping our Ability to Interpret It

I was reading a newspaper article the other day about it now being possible to create the genetic map of an unborn child. Fascinating stuff. But there was one line in the article that really got me thinking about data more than genetics itself: “The capacity of genomics to generate data is outstripping our ability to interpret it in useful ways.”

I don’t think this phenomenon is limited to genomics. I can think of lots of fields and industries and individual organizations that place a premium on collecting data but do not have the ability to interpret it in useful ways.

Some errors that drive me around the bend:

  1. Data for data’s sake. I have encountered too many organizations where they jumped on the data bandwagon and collected oodles of info that they never use. They devote loads of time to data for data sake without doing anything with the data. Data should drive decisions and program improvements.
  1. Feeling. I once had a boss that used gut check and nothing else to see if he could use the data to tell the story he wanted to tell. Ugh. If ever the data collided with his world view he would either want to bury the data, have us re-run the analysis (which came up with the same conclusions time and again) or would challenge the methods of data collection (there was nothing wrong with the collection methods). We cannot shy away from data when it tells us something different than what we were expecting or wanted to hear. Data won’t always tell you that you are doing an awesome job.
  1. Incorrect language. This is a well-intentioned error, but a common one all the same. People who don’t use data a lot will use words like “significant” or “sample” in ways that mean something completely different to data nerds and analysts than what they were intending. The result? People question their findings because of the incorrect language use. We could also get into incorrect manipulation of data (like averaging averages) but I won’t go there.
  1. Data analysis plan after the fact. Good scientific and defensible analysis of data requires us to have a good plan for how the data will be looked at before launching into the analysis of the data. Otherwise there can always be the accusation that the data analysis set up after the fact was done in such a way so as to bias the findings.
  1. People without any training drawing conclusions. Data analysis isn’t something that just anyone can do without proper training. We need to be infusing instruction on how to interpret data and take action upon it at the frontline and supervisory levels if we want organizations to use it properly. Oh, and Boards and Funders and Government too where there seems to be no shortage of people who have no clue how to read and interpret data and yet make huge decisions based upon the data.

But it isn’t just about interpretation or the common errors noted above. One major problem is that in many instances the data driven mentality has resulted in groups collecting way more data than they need (or at least trying to collect). A few things that happen as a result:

  1. Incomplete data sets. Hiring an outside expert to make sense of your data when the data sets are largely incomplete will not result in robust findings. Without some key fields filled in within your data system it is sometimes possible to make inferences and use proxy data, but it is not as reliable. We need staff to feel that data entry is part of the real work that they do – not something that happens after the real work is done.
  1. Constantly tweaking data asks. I could throttle (as I’m sure some service providers could as well) senior managers or funders that keep changing what data they want. Doing a file crawl or file audit to try and track down various pieces of data is not only inefficient, it is problematic by way of accuracy in many instances. Data asks should only be altered at the start of a funding year and should only be changed from one year to the next when there is a compelling reason to do so.
  1. Insufficient infrastructure to support analysis. And then there are times when service providers collect all of the data requested and send it to their funder. I have lost count of the number of times there are not enough staff with the Funder to pull the data together across the agencies, undertake the necessary quality assurance analysis on the data, analyze the data appropriately and report back out on the data. It goes into a black hole. Tragic.

So if you want to make the best use of the data collection and analysis in the environment you work in, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do we correctly capture the information we need to know if we are meeting our stated objectives? Yes, the data collected should be directly linked to the objectives of your activities. Do not collect more than you need to. Keep it simple. And here is a tip – pull together a small group of people who do the work on the frontlines to help define the data to be collected relative to the objectives. They are a great barometer on what is helpful and what is crap. 
  1. Do we have a plan for analyzing this information in regular intervals? Set out an analysis and reporting out schedule in advance. Don’t get too ambitious. Figure out what needs to be shared internally and what should be shared externally, how and when. Once you have the plan, stick to it. If you let it slide it is amazing how complacent the organization will be about data and reporting out.
  1. What do we do as a result of this information? This isn’t data collection and analysis just because a funder told you had to in order to get the money. You need to get into a mindset that if you collect only the data you need you should be able to reflect on service delivery and make it better.
  1. How can we do this better? Take a step back once every 6-12 months and ask yourselves how you can collect and use data better. You may find that this is the key to decreasing the amount of data that you collect and doing more meaningful things with the data you do have to improve programming and service outputs and outcomes.


For the umpteenth time, Iain will be presenting Data and Performance Simplified at the National Alliance to End Homelessness Conference in Washington, DC this July – and he is happy to do so. Stay tuned to see the presentation on the Alliance website shortly after the conference.

Be Awesome (And if you are already, please keep at it)

I haven’t figured out where along the way people think, “You know what would make for a great career? To work with chronically homeless people with a whole bunch of co-occurring complex issues and help them get and sustain housing.” – and then decide to do it for goodness sake. This pertains to the fine folks on the frontline, program administrators, policy wonks, foundation types, elected officials that give a darn about homeless people and a whole raft of other people. The mesmerizing and at time perplexing thing is that some people do decide that this is exactly how they want to spend their lives. In communities large and small. In countries close and far. And it is awesome. Be awesome. Pretty good mantra, right? If you are awesome, continue to be awesome and take time out to teach others to be awesome. If a belief in a higher power […] 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 »

National Alliance to End Homelessness Conference 2011 – aka #naeh11

My last tweet from the conference claimed that #naeh11 rocked harder than KISS on a stadium tour. I stand behind that even as the days pass since the conference ended and reflection sets in and turns in part to wisdom. I think what made it rock for me this year was different than past conferences. From my vantage point there was a bit of an edge amongst conference delegates. The edge wasn’t defiance. It wasn’t even anger per se. It struck me that there was frustration. The source of the frustration? I heard over and over again the impact of the economy on local communities and state governments and decreased fundraising efforts. I heard over and over again about increasing demand for services. But I actually don’t think it was solely either or limited to both of those things. I think there are communities that entered into 10 Year planning […] Read more »

Making Sense of Data

On one of my recent hotel stays, this is what the dashboard showed inside the elevator: Now, there are a few interesting tidbits that make this story even better. First, when I checked in I was told I was on the 1st Floor, which is AKA “L”. Second, 5 is really the second floor. Third, there are only four floors to the hotel. I suspect to the people that work at the hotel and use the elevator daily, this number series makes complete sense. To me, well, it reminded me of those times that I have been parachuted into homeless management systems to help make sense of what is going on. In most instances, they have a collection of data points – sometimes with peculiar labels like this elevator dashboard – and an assumption that everyone knows what the starting point is. Truth is, for any information system to have […] Read more »

Why I am stoked about the National Alliance to End Homelessness Conference

I love the National Alliance to End Homelessness conferences. Great networking. Great learning. Best conference there is on homelessness hands down. Did I mention that I have been doing presentations at the conferences for many years now? All around, super duper awesomeness. I will probably blog about this more, but in the fashion of The Late Show, here is my Top 10 list of why I am stoked about this year’s conference: 10. It’s in Washington. When not at the conference there are amazing things to see and do even if the city was built on a swamp and the humidity can be intense. A couple of years ago I went to the Holocaust Museum. Changed me forever – and I am not easily moved. (Okay, so I cried at the end, but don’t tell anyone – and I am not Jewish.) 9. Cool cats. Movers and shakers. Industry leaders. […] Read more »

Prioritizing Who Gets Served Next Matters – The Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (SPDAT)

When I led the largest Housing First program in North America, one of the things that bothered me was that we had no defensible way to prioritize who we served next. We dabbled with different instruments and had some stellar research thanks to folks like Toby Druce – but couldn’t quite put our finger on exactly how to prioritize who got served next and why. At least not in a defensible, reliable, consistent and valid way. Sure, there are some awesome instruments out there like the Vulnerability Index used by Common Ground and now the 100k Homes Campaign (and we are big fans of both); the Camberwell Assessment of Needs; the Outcome Star; the Denver Acuity Scale. But none of these were a perfect fit for the type of Housing First program that I was leading or other Housing First programs that I was familiar with. One of the first […] Read more »