As service providers, we are advocates for our participants. We relish the opportunity to stand up for the people who have been ignored or pushed down by our system. Through our support, we promote their ability to access housing, public benefits, or other community resources. But, we can find ourselves in a bind when we’re forced to serve a dual role—advocate and rule-enforcer. This is the position that many service providers end up in at single-site housing programs. In these programs, the service agency typically manages a property, acting as a landlord or property manager to its tenants, and provides case management to them at the same time.
Ideally, Housing First programs will separate housing and case management roles. This is easier in programs that use a scattered-site approach, housing participants in buildings with independent landlords throughout the community and providing case managers for them. One case manager in a single-site program articulates this by saying, “The difference is if I worked at scattered-site, if there was an issue it would be the landlord going to the participant or the case worker, saying, ‘This is the problem that I’m having’ and it’s up to us to advocate for them, instead of me working both roles.” When we end up working both roles, it discourages our participants and residents from feeling safe enough to approach staff when they’re struggling. Think about it, if you were having trouble making rent payments or having problems in your apartment, the last person you’d want to talk about it with is your landlord. Instead, you might hope that they just don’t notice you.
This is a major pitfall of some Housing First programs. Housing First is not a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to housing services. We will fall short in our efforts to assist them if we aren’t aware of the problems our participants are having and engaging with them about it. We want our participants to feel safe approaching us and talking through their difficulties related to keeping their housing. The more open they are about that, the better equipped we are to assist them with strategizing and avoiding serious consequences like eviction. We can’t expect our participants to feel comfortable approaching us when they see us as the key holder to their apartment. Case managers should be tasked with helping participants with avoiding lease violations, managing them when they happen, and advocating with property managers on their behalf. In the event of an eviction, the scattered-site model also provides greater flexibility to keep the person engaged in services and work to rehouse them.
This doesn’t mean that scattered-site is the only effective way to house our participants. There are benefits to other models like single-site, communal living, and recovery housing that include having a community of peer support on hand. Housing agencies that use single-site can still separate housing and case management by designating specific staff to handle those issues. There are also ways that the Housing First approach can be used in these models by paying attention to other aspects of the model. For example, those programs might still incorporate a Low Threshold Admissions Policy or provide flexibility in the services people use. But, setting up our programs so that case managers aren’t required to also serve as overseer of a property encourages participants to open up and share honestly about themselves.