I have been thinking about a question recently posed by Deb DeSantis, who is the President & CEO of CSH (which I am paraphrasing): How do we move the collective thinking from having bigger homeless facilities to better systems of care with housing at its foundation?
Let me give a bit of context: this happened at the Michigan Conference on Ending Homelessness, an event I have attended since before I even went into consulting and have spoken at almost every year. The very first presentation I ever gave at the conference was on Housing First, before it was fashionable or the central orientation to funding and service delivery. I have given variations of that same presentation at least three times since, either as keynotes or as session presentations. Either I am a lousy communicator or there are some organizations that do not believe in Housing First at all, still get funded to the same tune (or even more) than before there was a focus on housing, and have built empires to themselves.
I want to be clear that this is not a slag against any of the State entities in Michigan that have done a terrific job in trying to move towards ending homelessness. I know, for example, that all funding decisions are inherently political. I know that they have invested heavily in training and professional development for organizations so they can actually deliver Housing First programming. I have been to many states that have a similar experience to that of Michigan.
How do we balance the inherent contradiction of states and communities declaring that they want to end homelessness while some organizations in that same state and its communities expand its homeless programs rather than focus on housing?
Case in point, as I raised a glass with some folks with a large (but not Detroit) community, a service provider was going to great lengths to tell me about all of the programming they have recently added or expanded in their shelter: housing readiness, employment readiness, substance use recovery, money management, and, life skills. I asked, "How are those activities housing first?" The reply across the board - as if I was an idiot that just fell off a turnip truck - is that these things are essential to housing first success. When I challenged them further on what Housing First is and is not it was clear they were having none of my thoughts on the issue.
Organizations like this do not exist in isolation. I think one of the greatest frustrations that I have in this work is that for every organization that we seem to be able to transform to focus on ending homelessness, there is another one expanding their program offerings to keep people homeless longer. That is certainly the perception we often share on the OrgCode team anyway.
So how do we get people to focus on housing-focused systems of care rather than expansion of homeless services as Deb suggested? I offer these thoughts:
1. We need to educate communities better on what it means to think and act as a system rather than a collection of projects or programs.
2. We need to educate funders, especially philanthropists, on what investments help end homelessness versus which ones prolong homelessness.
3. We need CoC in the NOFA process to grow a backbone where they have not already done so and lean into conflict to address the system needs rather than avoid it.
4. We need communities and service providers therein to know the difference between the philosophy of housing first and the intervention of Housing First.
5. We need to soundly and publicly reject empires and approaches that have more to do with the egos of the service provider than the dignity of the individuals/families being serviced through the approach.