"...Then things started to change. I started working real close with them, being honest with them."
We want to take a moment to acknowledge the great story that The Indianapolis Star wrote about Penn Place, a first-of-its-kind Housing First program in Indianapolis, IN. This article is an excellent example of how we can be public advocates for our programs and the people that we serve. Penn Place also used this opportunity to ask for donations from the community and received resources to support their participants. Educating our communities about the Housing First Model and its benefits can improve the public support of programs like Penn Place. But, it’s not enough. We have to remember to continue educating the participants in our programs about the Housing First Model as well.
Think about the mindset of a person entering a Housing First program from homelessness. Their days are dictated by survival—wondering where their next meal is coming from, where they can sleep, what dangers might await them if they manage to close their eyes for a few hours. Without a sense of safety, they are under constant stress and it is difficult to focus, think logically, and connect with other people. An opportunity to escape the constant struggle of homelessness is presented and they jump at it! When you’re offered housing, there’s no space to consider the benefits of reduced service requirements and a client-centered approach. That means what we tell someone at intake or orientation about the Housing First Model might not be absorbed. So, we should seek other opportunities to reinforce our approach and why we use it.
There are aspects of the Housing First philosophy that are expressed in our daily work with clients. Any time we collaboratively help someone explore potential solutions to their problems, we highlight the Housing First emphasis on flexibility in services and valuing their perspective. In addition, we should explicitly describe aspects of the Housing First Model or they may go unnoticed. As one Housing First program participant explained, “It was shortly after that in one of our one-on-one sessions where [my case manager] said…’You realize your housing is not contingent on you being abstinent?’ And I hadn’t realized that at that point…Then things started to change. I started working real close with them, being honest with them.” All the flexibility and support in the world doesn’t make a difference if people don’t know it’s there. Even if we explain upfront that abstinence from substance use is not required, our clients are conditioned to assume that service providers have certain expectations. That’s why it’s so important that we revisit the Housing First Model with our participants and discuss the meaning of harm reduction and our commitment to deliver services that they want. Continually educating participants about Housing First can help us develop trusting relationships.
As helpers, our lives can get hectic. It’s easy to get caught up in managing our caseload and the day-to-day needs of our clients. But, it’s important to find opportunities to reinforce the approach to housing used in our programs. The Penn Place article itself is another opportunity to revisit the Housing First Model with our participants. It could be shared with them in a home visit or a community meeting. Finding ways to help participants understand our programs ensures that they get the most out of them. We should engage our participants about Housing First—what it is, what makes it different, and how it can benefit them.