Ultracrepidarianism and Fauxpinions

The first is a real word. The second one is made up. They are both related.

The first is to have opinions outside of one’s area of expertise or knowledge.

The second is to present opinions as facts when the opinion is not based upon fact.

In the world of social change, both hamper and thwart efforts to be effective.

Consider that most public policy is crafted and approved by legislators that do not have subject matter expertise regarding the matter that they are enshrining into law, funding, rights, etc. But they do have opinions. Regardless of what the public service may have put before them by way of data, research, experience of other jurisdictions, framing of pros and cons, financial impacts, etc., it is always the prerogative in a democracy for elected officials to deviate from the advice they are given and craft an approach based upon opinions alone.

This is the wretched, recurring uhtceare moment for the skeptical empiricist that would rather see evidence drive us to discussion and deliberation rather than opinion. Examples: mandatory minimums do not deter crime, but we seem to have an opinion that they do so and legislators create more reasons and longer sentences; sobriety is not a precondition for success in housing, but we seem to still fund and support a litany of recovery services that masquerade as homeless services and reinforce a false notion that people can only remain housed if they are sober; countries that have a long history of same-sex marriages and unions have not seen a deterioration of their moral fabric or destruction of opposite-sex marriages and unions, yet there remain some circles that fear-monger and suggest that such a thing will occur.

While we can see the snollygoster making such opinions possible in the realm of policy – and the populace is mumbudget – perhaps it is worse when fauxpinion takes fervent root. Another way of looking at the fauxpinion – the repeat of a lie enough times that people come to accept it as truth.

The master of the fauxpinion exists in just about every community. I find they are often long-term disciples within the service they work. They are held with reverence or placated rather than challenged. They hold power because they have woven their fauxpinions into some semblance of truth that has actually formed the foundation of the approach to addressing the social issue. Examples: the provision of survival supports like sleeping bags and food as a necessary ingredient to get people off the streets; addressing economic poverty is the only true way to combat housing instability; chronically homeless people (or a large subset thereof) prefers to be homeless than housed.

We need to shine a light on data in meaningful ways to get it into the discussion of public policy and social change. We need to present it with certainty and in terms that lay people can understand and use immediately. And we need to be assured because we can prove it that decisions based upon sound data and research is better than approaches founded solely on opinions that are beyond the subject matter expertise of the decision-maker, or based solely upon false facts that have tried to translate opinions into sounding like facts.

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 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 maintaining housing. This includes more complex issues like substance dependency and compromised mental wellness. Does the shelter offer any programming that is unintentionally prolonging anyone’s homelessness or incentivizing their homelessness? If so, rethink those programs. Some common examples include employment programs for people that are homeless, matched savings programs for people that are homeless, and education programs (like getting your GED through a shelter program). Is there a way you can offer these same supports once people get housed? That way you don’t lose your knowledge of how to deliver helpful programs, but you aren’t incentivizing homelessness.

Examine whether the shelter has an infrastructure that is promoting housing solutions. Do people have access to a telephone, computer and landlord listings? Is there a place where a landlord can leave a message that doesn’t “out” the person as being a shelter resident? Are there easily understood directions to the nearest benefits office? Is there access to a bus pass so that a person can get around the city to look at places? In family shelters, is there a service that can mind small children while mom/dad go look for housing without schlepping kids around with them? Are there staff available to answer the most common questions about housing? Are there staff resources (either shelter staff or an external service provider) that can work with people that have more intensive needs in navigating housing access and supports that may be of benefit?

Then look at the range of shelter services in your community (where there is more than one shelter). Is there a coordinated approach to figuring out how to get into shelters and ensure the person gets to the most appropriate shelter based upon his/her presenting issues? Are there any barriers in place of specific shelter providers or across the broad spectrum of shelter providers that impedes someone from getting into shelter? (Examples from my travels – requirements for ID; criminal reference check at the local police station first; documented proof of residency in the community prior to seeking shelter.)

I also encourage the shelter system to have standards of service that transcend more than one shelter provider. This way, from the shelter users perspective, there are certain transparent elements they can expect from any shelter provider. (In other words, they don’t just get lucky and get a “good” shelter provider through coordinated intake.) One of the elements that I urge shelter providers to reach consensus on, for example, are reasons for barring/service restrictions and length of time. I find it baffling that in the same community telling a shelter staff in Shelter A to F*ck off can get someone barred for two weeks, but punching a shelter staff in Shelter B in the face gets someone barred for three days.

But perhaps the most important things shelters can do to help end homelessness is maintain a housing focus in their work. When people are admitted to the shelter remind and encourage them to work on housing. When people are going through the orientation process, remind and encourage them to work on housing. When people are rising in the morning, remind and encourage them to work on housing. Yes, shelters can and should deal with crises and all of the symptoms of system failures that resulted in someone needing shelter in the first place; but if there isn’t a housing focus we will never be able to build enough shelters to keep up with demand.

Over time if your community has a strong focus on ending homelessness the number of shelter beds will be right-sized. But there will never be a day when shelters are not needed. There will always be some people experiencing housing instability. It is foolish to think otherwise. To me it’s like the local fire station – I never want there to be a fire in my home, but I sure am glad the firefighters are close by and ready to help me when there is. I never want people to need shelters, but I sure am glad really well-intentioned, professional people are there to provide shelter when it is absolutely necessary. I just don’t want anyone to confuse a shelter with a home.

Assessment & Prioritization Tools: What to Look For

Is your community trying to move towards common assessment as part of coordinated access? You should be. In response to inquiries from a few avid blog readers (thanks!) here are some questions you should ask when your organization/community is choosing an assessment and prioritization tool. 1. Is it grounded in evidence? There is no shortage of ideas on what may be a good thing to assess when a homeless person or family seeks services. Unfortunately, too many communities come up with their own list (sometimes LONG list) of things to assess without those ideas actually being grounded in evidence of what works, and the main currents of thought and practice in service delivery. That which we think and that which we know are often two totally different things. Your assessment tool should be grounded in knowledge and data, not unsubstantiated thoughts or feelings. 2. Has it been tested? Given the […] Read more »

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 […] Read more »

What Does it Mean when Government Endorses a Housing First Approach?

More and more I am seeing different orders of government – municipalities, states, provinces, federal – slip the words “housing first” or “Housing First” into their documents, policy briefs and contracts. I suspect (because I used to be one in a former life) there is a policy wonk that did some research, found the evidence of this approach to homelessness compelling, and advised political masters it was the bees knees. But does government know what it is asking/endorsing/requesting? Is what the policy advisor is recommended understood and translated well in the political arena? Do program designers that may have never delivered direct service at any point in their lifetime in this field really know what they are asking for? My experience suggests this is probably not the case. All of the evidence that pointed to this approach being a good one requires fidelity to practice of a true Housing First […] Read more »

When to Let Clients Go

In this blog I want to explore the transition of clients from being part of the active caseload in a time-limited housing support program to the point where they no longer need their housing case manager because they are connected to other community supports and their acuity has decreased. My experience – and through my travels this experience has been validated and shared by others – suggests that some of these thoughts may also be applicable to some individuals and families in Permanent Supportive Housing depending on the nature of the household, their length of time in PSH, and why they were first connected to PSH in the first place. You’ve worked your butt off to help an individual or family get to a place where their housing is stable in your housing support program. There are still matters in their life they are working on and they go through […] Read more »

Wellness and Recovery in Housing Support – Part 4 of 4

In Part Four of this blog series on Wellness and Recovery, I focus on what we would expect people in housing that are experiencing recovery to say they are seeking from their housing support worker, and what is appreciated most from their housing support worker. These are generalizations, realizing that each person that experiences recovery does so differently and may have different priorities in their recovery process. Read more »

Wellness and Recovery in Housing Support – Part 3 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 Three of this blog series on Wellness and Recovery, I want to focus on how support workers […] 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 »

Wellness and Recovery in Housing Support – Part 1 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. There’s a story – I don’t know if it is true – about a guru in Eastern medicine visiting a Western […] Read more »