National Alliance to End Homelessness Conference 2011 – aka #naeh11

My last tweet from the conference claimed that #naeh11 rocked harder than KISS on a stadium tour.

I stand behind that even as the days pass since the conference ended and reflection sets in and turns in part to wisdom. I think what made it rock for me this year was different than past conferences.

From my vantage point there was a bit of an edge amongst conference delegates. The edge wasn’t defiance. It wasn’t even anger per se. It struck me that there was frustration.

The source of the frustration? I heard over and over again the impact of the economy on local communities and state governments and decreased fundraising efforts. I heard over and over again about increasing demand for services. But I actually don’t think it was solely either or limited to both of those things.

I think there are communities that entered into 10 Year planning fully committed to seeing homelessness ended. But now they see the 10 Year Plan sit on a shelf or the local leadership shift or the resources made unavailable.

I think there are people and organizations that understand truly what effective approaches and evidence-based practices are and work hard to implement them, only to find other organizations still questioning Housing First, Rapid Re-housing, Critical Time Intervention, Harm Reduction, Trauma Informed Service Delivery and the like. They feel it is a constant, up-hill battle.

I think that the misuse of phrases and terms is stoking the frustration. There was Sam Tsemberis – the Mac Daddy of Housing First in the US – delivering a Keynote Address, and yet I heard “Housing First” misused at least a dozen times over the three days. I suspect that makes Sam cringe as much as it does me. Another overused, misused term was “case management”. I’d like to think it was only misused by those without formal training in social service delivery, but I am probably wrong on that front. I could go on and on and on. But as this relates to frustration, one of the things that makes the housing and homeless service delivery system so hard to explain to people is that we keep changing the language or have senior managers use language incorrectly and the like. Kind of makes it hard to communicate to other systems. (And as a related aside, can we PLEASE agree that we work with “homeless people” or “homeless individuals” or “homeless families” and respect that they are a heterogeneous group rather than saying “the homeless”? Thanks.)

I think we are feeling the effect of leaders amongst the boomers retiring or moving on to other challenges. Now is the time to provide Leadership for Outcomes (which coincidentally is a training series we offer – not that I am trying to make a plug in the blog). But I think we need to realize that it is frustrating when people mistake management for leadership…when the people looked up to in local communities do not have the tactical nor technical proficiency to be pull off what they are asked to lead.

I think we are looking to new energy and change-drivers to make things happen locally and that some places just need renewed energy. As Becky Kanis of the 100,000 Homes Campaign shared with me, a lot of the individuals driving the local boot camps and registry weeks are not the usual suspects or even who might be expected to take on such a role given their position.

I think the edge was even there with some of the speakers and presenters. For example, I absolutely loved how Sam defined this as the “decade of impatience”. I loved how Mark Hurwitz from Project Renewal in NYC presented figures on rates of incarceration and the inherent problems with sledgehammer force and precision in a session on working with ex-offenders. Then there was Elaine deColigny from EveryOne Home in Alameda County who did a sensational job talking about targeting prevention and essentially telling people to stop the guess work on prevention efforts and become data driven and evidence-informed. I loved her quote, “Data is like crack. Get a taste & you’ll want more.”

I felt the frustration amongst people who attended the sessions that I provided. One was on Data and Performance Simplified and the other was with Susan McGee, Amanda Sternberg and Kim Walker on creating an approach to Performance Measurement at the System Level. As usual, I brought the funny but didn’t get nearly the same energy from the attendees. In fact, for the first time ever I had two different people tell me to stop being funny at the sessions because it was distracting. Aside from jokes, people shared their stories with me about trying to take data and performance measurement seriously back in their organization or community only to have little or no support. I heard anecdotes about senior managers ignoring data whenever it told them something they didn’t want to hear.

And lastly I think there is a certain frustration with the sheer magnitude of change that people and organizations have experienced without yet having the opportunity to enjoy the “new normal”. My good pal Dr. John Whitesell introduced me (and others at conferences) to the great quote from Bartlett and Ghoshal’s The Leader’s Change Handbook, “The metaphor of a caterpillar transforming itself into a butterfly may be romantic but the experience is a highly unpleasant one for the caterpillar. In the process, it goes blind, its legs fall off and its body is torn apart to allow the beautiful wings to emerge.” I think some people and organizations are frustrated that they are still in the going blind-leg falling off-body torn apart stage and still haven’t got to the beautiful wings moment.

But lest you think the frustration is bringing me down, it actually gives me a lot of hope. See, people are frustrated because they care. If there were indifference, people would be checking out, not being frustrated. I think the Alliance is doing the right things through knowledge dissemination and certainly through the HEARTH Academy to try to challenge and harness that frustration into something positive – a force for good. I think social media will allow people the opportunity to vent their frustration and find like minded souls from around the world that share their approach and feelings to wanting to end homelessness even if they cannot always be nurtured locally. I think that through collective impatience that revolution – dare I call it a permanent revolution…but no, not “that” permanent revolution – is entirely possible. I think new initiatives and campaigns give people something to focus on and invest in to turn frustration into favourable energy. I think attending a conference with some 1,200 or so delegates that more or less also believe that ending homelessness is a good idea provides a safe, comfortable place to be frustrated – and I’ll take that frustration over the brand of frustration likely found in other communities large and small that still resist a change in focus to ending homelessness – the type of place that puts the “fun” back in “dysfunction” with the dynamics of how they relate to one another.

I can’t wait to share the journey with these frustrated folks over the next few conferences – assuming I get invited again in the future. Seems to me that if handled right this frustration is a sign of greater things to come.

If you want a copy of Iain’s presentations from the conference, send him a note at [email protected]

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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