PART TEN: Things Will Go Wrong
This is the last installment in our 10-part blog series on essential elements of successful housing programs. We’d love to hear from you about your thoughts on the series or any other topics you’d like to see in a future blog. [email protected]
I have never seen a perfect housing program. Have you? I’ve seen some darn good ones, but never a perfect one.
I don’t even know how we’d absolutely measure perfection given there are so many variables. When I think about simple, complicated, complex and chaotic systems, I think primarily about the work of Ralph Stacey and Brenda Zimmerman. I think housing programs are complicated – akin to sending someone to the moon. It isn’t impossible, but you need the right people do the right things to get there, and get back. However, the experience of homelessness is a complex one – there are too many variables that are outside the control of the housing program, from conflicting policy to individual autonomy and how people respond and react to various situations. Zimmerman uses the analogy of raising a child – you can do all of the things that you think are the best things you can do as a parent, yet your child will be subject to other actors in their life that can also have an influence.
It seems that the two measurements people are most drawn to are retention rates over time (whether the clients stay housed – even if it is at a different address) and whether the quality of life of people improves as a result of the housing programs and its supports. Seems a lot of programs do the former – albeit often not with longitudinal follow up (which I would argue is a shortcoming). Not nearly enough organizations do the latter – and I would hope that more organizations do.
In the previous nine installments of this blog series I’ve talked in great detail about things you can do to make your housing program better. It has been based upon research, visiting loads of housing programs, evaluating housing programs, interviewing clients and staff, and my own experience as a researcher and practitioner.
What I know to be true is that stuff will go wrong. Whether stuff goes wrong is not a black eye for your housing program. How you address things when they go wrong is what counts, as does demonstrated efforts to be proactive and trying to prevent certain things from happening.
The things I have encountered that have most frequently gone wrong are:
- Rent payments
- Hoarding/Excessive Collecting
- Conflict with neighbors
- Boundary issues
- Operating the housing program like a crisis service
Training and innovation can help address these issues on an ongoing basis. Some of my ideas and observations on each are as follows:
Guests/partying – this happens most frequently in the Formative Phase of being housed. I encourage organizations to have the “What does it mean to you to be a responsible tenant?” discussion with their clients at least three times – when they are expressing interest in your housing program, when you are searching for the place to live, and during the first month of their tenancy. Lecturing your clients about rules isn’t going to be nearly as effective as them coming to the conclusion on their own that maybe having 12 people over in the middle of the night with the stereo blaring is not a good idea.
Rent payments – the best ways I have found to address this are through third party payment of rent directly to the landlord from income assistance or the place of employment, coupled with each housing worker checking with each one of their landlords by the fifth business day of the month to make sure they each received all their rent from all of housing program clients on time and in full.
Damages – the more you allow for choice in where to live (rather than placements), the more you allow for choice in furnishings and belongings for the unit (rather than pre-furnished) and the more you undertake home visits, the less likely there is going to be damage and/or when there is minor damage it is addressed before it becomes an ongoing or larger issue. Avoiding damage can also be part of what you want to hear clients talk about in the “responsible tenant” discussion.
Pests – bed bugs, mice, rats, cockroaches, etc happen. Rarely is the proliferation of these pests a direct result of your clients, though they may get blamed. When pests are detected, I encourage you to work with the client to notify the landlord and see how the landlord implements their pest control/eradication strategy. (You can read an article I co-authored with Stephen Hwang, Tomislav Svoboda, Karl Kabasele and Evie Gogosis on bed bugs in urban environments for the Center for Disease Control’s Emerging Infectious Disease publication.)
Pets – if the lease restricts pets or the number of pets and/or there are local laws that prohibit a certain number of pets within a residence, then I recommend specifically drawing these things to the attention of the client prior to move-in. You may not even know if they are a pet lover or not, but better to address this in advance than later. As much as I am a fan of pets, I hate to see people have to choose between their animal and becoming evicted. Bring proactive matters on this front.
Hoarding/Excessive Collecting – the portrayal of hoarding on TV shows seems so different from the experience I have had with clients who are hoarders, but I digress. The best defense there is to help counteract hoarding is the fact that there are regular home visits as part of the housing program. Yes, there will be times when the housing unit can be filled between visits, but this is rare and exceptional, not the norm. Seeing a mass of stuff start to grow when present at home visits allows for early detection, probing questions about the impact the client thinks it may have on their tenancy and if necessary, can allow for a connection to be made to a community-based expert in the matter before it gets out of control.
Conflict with Neighbors – rarely does anyone choose their neighbors. Sometimes we get lucky and our neighbors are people we like and form real friendships with; other times we are cordial, polite and tolerate their existence; other times still there is friction and conflict. I think it is good for clients to be encouraged to ask the landlord when they are looking at the place what the other residents are like. I think it is good for clients after they move in to introduce themselves to people living around them (as in “Hi, I’m Iain and I just moved in next door.” – not, “Hi, I’m Iain and I am formerly homeless and my support worker just helped me find the place next to yours.”) I also think that in some instances time on the part of the support worker will be spent modeling various types of social behavior. I remain hopeful that most clients, perhaps with some coaching, can address conflicts with their neighbors on their own, but I appreciate sometimes a mediator/facilitator will be necessary. Let us also not forget that sometimes it is the behavior of the client we are supporting that is the cause of the conflict. This is one of the reasons why I advocate for checking in with landlords/superintendents when the case manager does a home visit.
Boundaries – while I wish I didn’t have to write this as a common issue, I would be remiss not to bring it up given the unfortunate frequency with which it occurs. Our clients are not our friends. We have a professional relationship with them and nothing more. Do not hug them, kiss them, have sex with them, invite them to babysit your kids, ask them to build you a deck, hire them to clean out your gutters, invite them to rent the apartment in your basement, loan them your car, buy or accept gifts of value from them, befriend them on Facebook, have them over for Christmas dinner, ask them to house-sit for you, etc, etc, etc. It is perplexing to me that these types of relationships not only happen, but the frequency with which it happens. I think we need to create outlets for case managers to safely reveal when they think they may be about to cross a line prior to it occurring.
Operating the Housing Program Like a Crisis Service – your housing program is not a crisis service. (Repeat that again in your head or out loud if necessary – it is very important.) Too often I have seen service planning with clients get completely derailed because the case managers drop everything to deal with crisis after crisis. More often than not they soon find themselves never visiting some clients who are not in crisis, and spending a great deal of time with a smaller number of clients – many of whom will act like they are in crisis but are not really in a crisis state at all. I know a lot of staff that have been in this position that also soon feel that they are not really making any progress with casino their caseload and online casino are more susceptible to burnout and frustrations with their job. One of the ways we can help our clients understand our role is to complete a Crisis Plan with them soon after they have been housed. We also have the ability to help them understand the role of the case manager through the Objective Based Home Visit approach, discussed in an earlier blog in this series.
I hope you operate the best housing program you possibly can and that the blog series has been helpful to your professional practice. I encourage you to chat up the problems most frequently experienced within your team and/or across other housing teams in your community. Coming up with proactive strategies and solutions is a shared responsibility for our professional programs to get better and better.
Iain De Jong welcomes your feedback and input on the blog series [email protected]