Staff Change as the Shelter Changes

I have the pleasure of working on some large scale shelter transformations these days. It is easy to say you are becoming a housing-focused shelter and something different to put into practice. The ideas, concepts and techniques are transferable across jurisdictions. That said, we are noticing a distinct patter in the reactions of existing shelter staff as they work through the transition over several months. It looks something like this (and I don’t know the author of this graphic, so don’t know who to attribute this bit of genius to):

The transformation of a shelter to become housing-focused is hardest to achieve with existing staff. Invariably, there are some people that self-select out of the organization. Then there are others who are genuinely curious and want to see how things unfold. Then there are others who have checked out, but stick around if you know what I am saying.


In some shelters you’d swear that being housing-focused was a different language where they have no frame of reference of how to engage effectively with shelter guests. Staff were good at quick conversations, handing out towels, breaking up fights, and ensuring the AA meeting goes off without a hitch, but have no clue how to talk about housing applications, prioritization, listings, or security deposits.

I know everything.

Get one person housed and some staff act as though they should get a Congressional Medal of Honor (or Order of Canada). There are quick wins in becoming housing-focused. The danger, though, is taking a handful of low-hanging acuity, getting them housed quickly (because they probably could have done it themselves), and thinking everything will go that smoothly for everyone else thereafter. One of the tell-tale dangers of this phase – you’ll assess anything that moves thinking there is a magic answer behind every score. Assessment scores is not the knowledge you actually need.

There’s more to this than I thought.

Start becoming housing-focused in one part of a shelter operation and in no time you are over your head in all of the things that need to change to be effective. The two most transformative are rewriting shelter expectations to be housing-focused, and altering your service-restriction/trespassing/barring policy to align with a strength-based, housing-focused approach to service delivery. Be prepared for a bunch of staff to quit (or at least want to) at this juncture. And one of the other tell-tale signs of this phase – you won’t want to assess anybody because you see the bottleneck you have created and wonder what the point is of putting people on waiting lists. As change starts, so too does the disillusionment and lack of trust in the vision.

I’m never going to understand this.

Then the day comes when the lightbulb goes off and you start to realize that things like your approach to diversion and intake is directly related to your success in getting people to exit the shelter in a timely fashion. And you appreciate that the building needs some renovations to be more aligned to trauma-informed practice and a housing orientation. You will find yourself questioning very form and every field in HMIS. On top of that, you realize much of what you have been doing with shelter guests for years has been all the wrong things – and there is a career crisis. Plus, you have been looking at all of the wrong data and doing funding applications all wrong. Some long-time shelter guest at this point will remark that they miss the good ol’ days, and waxing nostalgic you probably think they are on to something.

It’s starting to make sense.

When housing-focused approaches start to click, there is consistency in higher acuity people accessing housing through or apart from coordinated entry. Shelter guests are staying for a shorter period of time and most of the conversations with shelter guests are about housing rather than day to day transactions. The new staff that are coming on board are eager to get on with housing as many people as possible. You likely find yourself quizzical and sometimes downright giddy when looking at your monthly housing statistics and how far you’ve come, being flummoxed but determined to house those people that have alluded you up to this point.

Trust me. It’s complicated.

By the time you reach this stage, if you are still around, you find yourself cringing every time your boss tells a story of one of the people housed through your shelter. It sounds like a sample size of one, and while you are happy that your boss is so excited about housing people, they seem to forget how hard it was to get to this place and how many staff were lost in the process. On top of this, a whole bunch of staff that were kicking and screaming along the way are now acting like the biggest cheerleaders for being housing-focused – the homeless service industry equivalent of Holden Caulfield’s phonies.

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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