Diversion: Making it Work

This blog is part of the “You asked for it” series. In December, on the OrgCode FaceBook page I asked people want blogs they wanted to see. These blogs are a direct response to the most popular suggestionsThis one goes out to Zach Brown. He asked for a blog about “the whole biz on diversion” because it is “sorely lacking out there in the informosphere.”

Some people think diversion is about rejecting service to people. Seriously. I have seen it happen. Other people think diversion is about finding short-term fixes like a motel room instead of having people come into shelter. I am not kidding.

Diversion is a service. It is not the absence or denial of service. It is the art and science of finding safe and appropriate alternatives to shelter use. It is about empowering the front end of the system to try and resolve problems through natural supports and progressive engagement of “lighter touch” solutions before providing a more intensive response through the shelter system or any other homeless service.

Diversion is highly effective when there is coordinated entry into shelter services because there is greater structure and control, and less variation in how it is applied. When diversion is used in a decentralized approach to shelter entry, there is a risk of “service shopping” emerging where someone that is seeking service does not get the immediate answer they want of shelter entry they go to another shelter (and another and another and another in larger cities) until they get admitted.

Let me give you an example of a place where diversion is kicking butt: Phoenix. There is a centralized intake for families known as the Family Housing Hub. Here is what they wrote in mid-December:


Great news! Since launching the Family Housing Hub in mid-August, our staff has formally diverted 100 families from emergency shelter. Rather than add them to community waiting list for services, our highly skilled staff spent at least an hour with each of these families to help them problem-solve and identify safe, affordable housing options to prevent them from entering the homeless system. We are having great success at providing information and tools so families are able to end their own homelessness. And it’s working! Only 2 of the 100 families have returned to the Family Housing Hub and entered the homeless service system.


How did they do it? And how are others like them doing it? They are treating diversion as a service, investing in training to learn how to do it properly (in this case from yours truly), and applying these nine steps, outlined generally here (and more in depth in training):



Explanation of the diversion conversation. You want to use a scripted conversation that outlines how you wish to avoid entry into shelter whenever there is a safe and appropriate alternative.


You want them to articulate why – exactly – they are seeking shelter today. As part of the same step you want to know what they have already tried or thought about trying but haven’t attempted yet.


You want to understand where they stayed last night, how long they have stayed there, and whether or not they can return there safely for at least another three days while trying to figure out next steps. If where they were staying is unsafe or they cannot return, you can skip to Step Six.


Following on the previous step, you want them to name the MAIN reason they had to leave the place they stayed the night before. Then, as a follow up, you want to know if there are any other reasons they cannot stay there. (Sometimes what they saw as the main reason and what the more pressing reason really is from your perspective may be different and illuminating.)


You then want to find out if their time there could be extended if the person knew that permanent solutions and referrals were being made, connecting them to other community resources. If they still say they have no way to extend, you want to ask what it would take to extend it.


If they cannot return to where they stayed the night before or if it was unsafe, you then want to explore other potential people they could stay with that may be safe and appropriate to connect with.


After determining there is no alternative for them to put into action, and before admitting to shelter, there are a series of exploratory questions to better understand why they are having difficulties finding permanent housing. This sometimes reveals nuggets of information that can inform an appropriate referral that can solve their housing instability.


This step explores what resources they may have at their disposal or through family members that would allow for an alternative to shelter and/or could help inform their pathway to permanent housing.


This step is the parting words for shelter access. It goes like this:

  • If admitted to shelter there is still an expectation that you will be attempting to secure permanent housing for you and your family. What is your plan at this point for securing housing if you are admitted to shelter?

We want people to know, even upon shelter entry, that shelter is not the answer. Permanent housing is the answer. Even if they do not have a plan, we want them to stay focused on housing and getting out of shelter from the first day they are in shelter.

About Iain De Jong

Leader. Edutainer. Coach. Consultant. Professor. Researcher. Blogger. Do-gooder. Potty mouth. Positive disruptor. Relentless advocate for social justice. Comedian. Dad. Minimalist. Recovering musician. Canadian citizen. International jetsetter. Living life in jeans and a t-shirt. Trying really hard to end homelessness in developed countries around the world, expand harm reduction practices, make housing happen, and reform the justice system. Driven by change, fuelled by passion. Winner of a shit ton of prestigious awards, none of which matter unless change happens in how we think about vulnerability, marginality, and inclusion.

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