Homeless Campuses: What Does the Future Hold?

There was a time when homeless campuses were seen as the best possible approach to working with people experiencing homelessness. Some consultants (experts?) continue to talk about a Housing Fourth approach (read this) as they try to get government officials to choose the campus approach. No doubt, though, there is loads to be learned from existing campuses – and from this learning we can posit what the future may hold.

I have been to MANY homeless campuses. I have been to the big ones like Haven for Hope in San Antonio and what they do for single adults in Phoenix. I have been to smaller and medium sized ones like what they do in Lafayette. I would say that some have made valiant attempts to offer excellent services co-located on one plot of land, and that campuses with a single central service provider would appear to perform better than campuses with multiple, co-located service providers. I do not hesitate to say, however, that I have seen considerably more terrible campuses than decent ones. Whenever asked for my professional opinion, it is a no brainer to me: don’t ever do a campus unless you absolutely have to…and if you have to, you likely need a visionary Chief Programs Officer (or comparable position) to hold it altogether and get results.

First the pains that I have seen from visiting plenty of campuses…

Co-location does not, it seems, result in collaboration in most instances. When more than one service provider is in the same geographic area on the same plot of land it seems to result in competition and suspicion instead of unified, cooperative services. You may think people will want to work with each other to end homelessness. That is not really the case. There is, most often in these instances, a lack of governance or empowerment of a leader to take charge across the campus when there is more than one service provider. What occurs is lots of talk about wanting to work with each other, followed by talk of what another service provider is doing to get in the way of that, followed by inertia. If you go back to the planning phases, and in some instances early stages of operation, there was energy amongst different service providers to be working in lock step. Over time that seems to fade. Senior leaders, then, start spending more time managing relationships across service providers, than doing program improvements to get people out of homelessness.

Funders sometimes think they can whip things into shape by setting expectations of cooperation when there are multiple service providers on the same campus. But what happens is a lot of finger pointing. Organizations want to put their best foot forward, even if it means throwing others under the bus. There is loads of energy expended protecting each organization’s slice of the campus pie that they have no common interest in what funders are trying to achieve.

Prioritization is difficult on a campus. Organizations on a campus can have different mandates, missions or interests. Heck, even when there is just one service provider on the entire campus you can see differences between program areas in how they respond to prioritization. Without central authority, getting to a place where there is agreement on whom to serve in which order is tough – if not impossible. Then you spend all of your time assessing and none of your time housing. Because campuses are magnets for people experiencing homelessness the volume of people seeking assistance can exceed the capacity of intake and assessment.

When there are other homeless services in a community in addition to a campus, communities often struggle with how to put the pieces of the puzzle together. By sheer size and multitude of programs, the campus can see itself AS the system. When there are multiple service locations, the campus is PART of the system, not THE system.

It has also been my experience that on many, many campuses antiquated ideas die a slow death. Employment readiness? Still see it in spades. Focus on transitional housing as a way to prove readiness or worthiness for housing? Tons of it. Reforming the behaviour of people to make them ready for housing? Alive and well. This isn’t necessarily because of poor-intentioned staff. Antiquated programs can come as a result of the built form that exists on the campus. For example, if the original campus built a lot of classrooms and vocational teaching spaces, they can get stuck on employment readiness. If the campus built reams of transitional housing, then they seem to hold tight. If the campus created a “step up” or continuum model between physical spaces on the campus, then amending even one part of the campus creates havoc on the whole model – and, well, keeping things as they were seems easier.

Assets inhibit innovation. Because the campus revolves around the built form, making change is difficult or financially cumbersome. Urban planners would have a field day figuring out what should have happened and why. So much about the campus experience misses the client-centered approach to design and instead focuses on greater ease of service delivery for the service provider. While the scale of the campus plays a role in this, it doesn’t make smaller campuses exempt from the challenges of reforming and changing parts of the built form. To that end, I think of places like Lafayette and the sheer energy and determination it takes to even amend small parts of the campus.

If you track the planning and development cycle of a campus, there is excitement that so much money that has been invested in the campus. There are generally no shortages of celebrations of what has been fundraised and built. But wait a couple years because that elation is often followed by heartache that it does not seem to be panning out. Then there is wonder and consideration if there was just a small thing that was done wrong. Then systemic and systematic review. Many times I have seen this followed by a desire to blow up and start some parts of it (or the whole thing) all over again.

The social impacts of campuses must also be considered. First, let us look at the relationship of the campus to the rest of the community. Often (though not always) the campus is stuck away from other services. In Phoenix, for example, the campus for single adults is on the edge of downtown not far from a somewhat run-down and forgotten cemetery. In San Antonio it is literally on the other side of the tracks. It is isolating. “Out of sight, out of mind” comes to mind. And then after the campus is built there is no shortage of businesses and elected officials that wonder why they see people that are homeless anywhere in the downtown or near businesses or residential neighbourhoods. I have encountered people who think you can legislate and confine people that are homeless to a campus – as if it is a prison of some sort.

The social issues located near the campus when there is such a concentration of people is also an issue. What can be manageable behaviours and expectations of being neighbourly when homeless services are integrated into community goes out the window when the scale gets too large and all concentrated in one place. I have yet to see a campus for single adults that has not seemingly blown its brains out on security costs and measures and/or had ongoing difficulties working with local law enforcement because of social issues near the campus.

Another social impact is what the concentration of people with co-occurring issues sharing the same space on that scale does to people. Spend enough time homeless and the experience of homelessness becomes normal, not abnormal. Spend day in and day out with a social group that reinforces the normalcy, and an exit from homelessness can be much more problematic. Amplify this by 100 and you can see how people get entrenched or even lost on the campus.

Not long ago I had the chance to learn about the early stages of planning, development and operations of a large and somewhat infamous campus. A psychosocial-rehabilitation model seems pervasive in many campuses, and this one was no exception. It became clear to me in the discussion that there were probably more ideas that didn’t work than did work. Problems that they were assured would be solved in the community through the campus were not solved, just relocated (and with that came some new issues) There has been a huge evolution in programming there, and I have been so proud to play a small part in it, helping them move more towards support and housing people quicker through assessment.


To be clear, not every campus has the issues noted above. Some seem to work, though I would argue, not because of the campus, but despite the campus. And I think there are some opportunities to improve existing campuses further to make them more amenable to ending homelessness.

When there are multiple service providers on one campus, I think a campus has the opportunity to do better work if there is a single pot of funding that goes to the campus rather than providers on the campus. There should be mutual performance metrics associated to what the campus achieves with this funding as a whole. For this to be successful, more centralized oversight is critical related to funding and performance.

Overcoming the overwhelming concentration on a campus can be improved through better diversion to keep as many people out of the campus as possible when there is a safe and appropriate alternative. A robust front door that does problem solving prior to entry into programs is critical (whether in person or over the phone). This must be resourced properly for this to be successful because of the sheer volume of people that can arrive at a campus in any given day. Satellite intake points may be worthy of consideration.

Again when there is more than one service provider on the campus, if each campus has a czar to make decisions and provider leadership, there is a greater likelihood of success. However, leadership only comes with followers. This only works if there is agreement to follow a centralized leader. Nonetheless, it seems critical to me that a highly accountable governance structure is put in place, with an administrator empowered to make decisions on behalf of the entire campus and to provide direction to providers on the campus that must be followed.

Consolidating housing resources becomes possible in a campus environment to truly prioritize and leverage the strengths of different programs on campus. There is the ability to get people housed quicker when there is rapid assessment and assignment to a housing resource. This should ensure that the most chronic people get out of homelessness and into housing – without a return to homelessness – as quickly as possible. I would argue for a more centralized approach to assessment and prioritization on the campus.

Campuses could be an excellent example of co-located services if they were designed to be person-centered. The campus as a whole has to share this vision and approach, and not be a case where individual programs or service providers on the campus consider people to be “my clients”. This likely requires a shared vision of what each campus is attempting to achieve.

And for campuses to ever succeed there has to be loads of education to elected officials, business and community leaders prior to embarking on the process. People that are homeless may end up in places other than the campus…including the downtown, public parks, open space, and civic areas. A campus is not automatically less costly. And if there is one final take-away for those parties, an important reminder that a campus does not end homeless – housing does!

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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