National Alliance to End Homelessness Conference: 3 Ups and 3 Downs

I just completed my 11th National Alliance to End Homelessness conference. It is a touchdown point for me every year. It is a chance to take stalk of how I am doing and how OrgCode can help; it is a barometer of where communities and America is at in its pursuit of ending homelessness. Here are my three ups and three downs of the conference:

First the Ups:

1. The National Alliance to End Homelessness does not disappoint.

Make no mistake about it, under the leadership of Nan Roman this organization knows how to organize and succeed at the conference experience. The conference tracks this year were well organized. The calibre of speakers they can recruit is extraordinary (and if you don’t know – speakers volunteer their time and get themselves to the conference and pay for their hotel room all on their own dime). The content was relevant.


2. We have weathered the storm of the Family Housing Options study.

I thought the Family Housing Options study would be the destructive factor in the conference and railroad fruitful discussion on rapid rehousing. It did not. I think speakers – including researchers, consultants, practitioners and Alliance staff – all handled the framing of it well. There are methodological flaws. There are still some good lessons to learn.


3. Networking.

This conference is a magnetic gathering point for everyone that works in the homelessness service field. There were 1,700 people this year at the conference. That is extraordinary. How far they have grown! Registration closed early. But more important than the volume of people present was the networking that you experience and see occurring. More than just “here is the great thing my program is doing” bragging that happened historically in some instances, I saw a lot more collegial sharing and interest in listening. Oh, and people had some fun too.


Now the Downs:

1. VA Secretary McDonald.

The plenary on Friday with Secretary McDonald was a colossal disappointment to me. There was no mention of the clusterfudge that is GPD programs and how this relates to ending homelessness.  It is THE issue in my opinion as communities work to zero. I wanted to see leadership in navigating how they are responding to GPD to get a successful resolution to all homelessness. Instead there was silence. The issue of the value of ending veteran’s homelessness over other homelessness has always been a sticking point for me. I will own that. But all of the messaging around veteran’s reinforced the divide between VA services and HUD funded services in my opinion. For example, when the secretary speaks of it being a patriotic duty of landlords to rent to homeless veteran’s, is there not a patriotic duty to take care of the poor and suffering and huddled masses that were not veteran’s? I also refuse to believe the rhetoric and narrative that ending veteran’s homelessness will teach everyone else how to end homelessness. Why? Because there is no policy or funding discussion about making the same volume of resources available to HUD funded programs. Yes, proving that homelessness can be ended is a good thing. Saying that the VA funded resources will show others how to do it is a fallacy because they have resources that no one else has access to. McDonald did not build a bridge. He did not show everyone a pathway forward of ending all homelessness. He promoted a self interest. That is only going to make matters worse, not better.


2. Considerable variation on what people mean when using the same terms.

Even with a shiny glossary at the back of the conference agenda, there was still no shortage of people using the same terms and meaning different things. Let me give you an example: rapid rehousing. One guy I spoke to was describing how they use rapid rehousing for people at imminent risk of eviction, not persons experiencing homelessness. Another lady was telling me about the great outcomes of their rapid rehousing that requires participants to have employment income in order to be eligible for services. Some people in sessions seemed to be referencing a “light touch” while others talked about rather intensive supports. Other terms that require more careful parsing to move forward in a common understanding: diversion, housing first, navigator, case manager.


3. Confusing programs with systems.

A program is an approach to delivering services to a particular population (or populations) within the context of other programs, funding, policies, legislation and day to day reality. Some people can only see their program or the service orientation of their program and do not see the system as a whole and the interconnectivity of its parts. Let me give you an example: a session where a provider spoke of their conversion from transitional housing to rapid rehousing, but could not put what they experienced into the context of other service providers, the impact on homelessness in the entire community, how resources get allocated in the community, or the migration of people experiencing homelessness from one program to another. Let me give you another example related to Housing First. I have great respect for Sam Tsemberis and I am a strong supporter of Recovery Oriented Housing Focused Assertive Community Treatment. It doesn’t help when he tells a room full of people that he does not believe in coordinated entry or common assessment. He has rejected/ignored all offers to meet or discuss with me the VI-SPDAT and SPDAT, as the Alliance conference was not the first place he has made such claims. It also doesn’t help when Nan has to hold him accountable for inconsistencies in statements he has made around rapid rehousing between various meetings and conferences. Housing First is a particular type of service intervention, as well as being a philosophy to how services should be delivered – and a strongly support both. But Housing First is NOT a system and it is dangerous to suggest it is (in the same way that it is dangerous to suggest that an assessment tool is a system or an assessment tool is coordinated entry). A system has many programs. How they share a service orientation is important. How they link together is important. Confusing a program for a system – whether that is rapid rehousing or Housing First or diversion or progressive engagement or whatever – puts us backwards, not forwards.

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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