For individuals that have had a long history of homelessness there is a psychological adaptation that occurs. The experience of being homeless and spending most days trying to meet basic needs becomes normal as a survival mechanism. The individual’s social network – if there is one – tends to be comprised mainly of others that have experienced homelessness for long periods of time. All of this is are common – if not expected – adaptations to combat the stressors of long-term homelessness. It helps ensure survival.
In many communities, the long-term homeless population is not one that is underserved. Because of the survival mentality, these individuals have learned how to use the system of services to survive. As a result, they can, in some many instances, be over-served. But none of the services may be adequately focused on ending their homelessness. The services are focused primarily on keeping people alive for another day. Keeping people alive through these services such as shelter, drop-ins, meal programs and the like certainly have benefits (I am definitely not advocating that we do nothing and let people die) but the proliferation of the services and long-term use of them can create a dependency. The very things that are keeping people alive may have the unintended consequence of propelling the psychological transformation further to the point where recipients of the services become desensitized to the true function of the services (to meet short-term immediate needs).
Below I outline the four steps in the Journey to Housing Stability. There will always be exceptions in any typology of this nature, and people need to accept that at the outset. However, based upon review of hundreds of case plans and case notes of chronically homeless people, interviews with a range of service providers and Team Leaders, extensive interviews with persons who have experienced long-term homelessness, an examination of grey and academic literature, and my own experience as a service provider, I think these four steps are rather accurate. If nothing else, they provide a helpful language for discussion amongst frontline staff in working with chronically homeless people.
The first step in the Journey to Housing Stability is Dependent & Unaware. The dependency comes from years of relying on the human services delivery system to meet basic needs. Chronically homeless people (who incidentally also have a history that often includes time spent in other institutional or quasi-institutional environments where needs are met in a similar way) are dependent on others for meals, shelter, access to food, access to health care, etc. Because the experience of homelessness for this group becomes normalized over time, people lose their sense of awareness of the dependency. This is a group of individuals that can be a voracious consumer of resources. While the concept of housing can be quite appealing to this group, the act of being housed is, in fact, abnormal. Increasing awareness about the use of resources (especially in the context of being housed) is critically important for the support worker. Because of the lack of awareness, it is quite common for this group of individuals to make a series of “demands” in the early stages of being housed, even when these demands are couched in language of gratitude or thankfulness. The degree to which they may have become dependent on others to meet daily subsistence needs is something that they are not fully – or at all – aware of. What is being offered by the support worker may be perceived as simply another resource to be consumed.
The second step in the Journey to Housing Stability for previously chronically homeless persons is Dependent & Aware. It is my contention that real goal setting and individualized service planning can really only begin once an awareness of the use of resources is established (or is in the process of being established). Because goals have actions that often require other resources, this is the perfect opportunity to increase that awareness. This group is very likely to be focused on the “why” question. By that I mean there is a sense of inquisitiveness to truly figure out how all of the pieces of the puzzle come together for longer-term housing stability. People become aware not only of what they need to survive on a day to day basis, but what they need to have greater life stability…a “future-based” orientation that extends beyond just living for today. I have found that to provide the best assistance for people who are increasing the awareness of their dependency on a range of other resources is to focus on small wins and SMART goal setting (specific, measureable, attainable, realistic and timed). We want to support people in a transition towards improved awareness.
The third step in the Journey to Housing Stability for previously chronically homeless persons is Independent & Aware. This step is characterized by individuals that can establish their own goals and action plans, without the assistance of a support worker helping them with a framework for doing so, or with the support worker being the one to bring the resources to the table for them to consider or access. This transformation happens when people begin to make the transition from a normative stage of their growth to an integrative stage of growth. It has been my experience that individuals that have achieved independence and are aware of the actions and resources they need, may think they are in a position to no longer require supports of any nature from their support worker. Many support workers erroneously back away when this is the case. But if that happens, the final step of the Journey to Housing Stability may be missed – Interdependent & Aware.
This fourth step – Interdependent & Aware – is one of the cornerstones of healthy community living, as much of the literature on community planning can attest to. It is my contention that society works better when people do not live solely in independent isolation, but when we intentionally try to build community…when we nourish appropriate collectivism designed not to strip away personal identity, but to help people position their independent strengths and attributes into a context where they have meaningful connections with others. Part of our job in providing supports to previously chronically homeless persons isn’t just about getting them housing or helping them address the likes of health, mental health or addiction issues – it is about helping people create, recreate, develop and/or nourish social relationships and networks where they have a social safety net comprised first of friends and family before reliance on human services organizations.
Universally, for each person that we serve, achieving housing stability is a journey. Each “journey” has stops along the way; discernible milestones in the trip. The more that we appreciate that the approach we take towards assisting people is incremental and process driven when it comes to informing how we support people, the better off both clients and support workers will be.
The four steps of the “Journey to Housing Stability” are part of OrgCode’s day long workshop on successful Rapid Re-housing & Housing First programs. For more in-depth information on the four steps or the workshop, please drop us a line.