Self-Doubt: Winning (and Losing) the War on Homelessness

At this time tomorrow, I will be on a Boeing 777, traveling about 5,015 miles to Buenos Aires, Argentina. My brother and I will be celebrating his 50th birthday. As is customary, in our family, turning 50 earns us an AARP membership card and the right to pick the bucket-list-venue-of-choice for their birthday. As my brother is a Navy reservist and Afghanistan veteran, he chose to sail around Cape Horn (the southern tip of South America), then visit Antarctica. This is major “cred” if your’re a sailor, and a pretty good holiday if you’re not (such as myself).

I chose to spend my 50th birthday in France. Now if you’re from England (I lived there until I was 10), insulting or declaring war on France is somewhat of a national pastime. In my case, it is more of a charade than anything else – I love France and have an extensive list of places that I have not yet visited. And they treated me like royalty during my holidays to the Cote d’azur.

You are probably wondering at this point why you are reading about the holiday plans of two old codgers? My points are two-fold: 1) Self-care is important; most of us are passionate about ending homelessness. Once in a while, we need to get away, spend some time relaxing, or as travel writer Rick Steves observes, step out of your comfort zone and become a “temporary local” – experiencing a part of the world you have never been to before. I believe that the more we can empathize and understand others, the more we can understand ourselves. Plus most of my best ideas occur when I not busy with appointments and meetings.

My seconds point, and the idea behind the title of this blog, is my continued self-reflection about ending homelessness. Is this a battle that is effective, and am I making a difference? The methodology behind ending homelessness, such as housing first, is well documented. However getting a buy-in (and funding) from our elected officials and others remains elusive. I see that our collective efforts is gaining traction, but most communities want to kick the can down the road or put the issue out to pasture through inertia or bureaucracy (doing nothing is safer than doing something; watch an episode of “Yes Minister” on YouTube for a how-to guide).

I started doing homeless outreach in 2012 because no one else wanted to. Since then, my efforts have grown exponentially. Street homelessness (rough sleeping) is down almost 50% since 2014 in Hillsborough County, Florida. I credit effective outreach, engagement and bringing the stakeholders to work together, not against each other (perhaps London, Manchester and other communities can adopt solutions that work).

My start in this business, evolving from beat cop to homeless cop, is very anti-climatic: My boss stopped me in the hall and asked if I wanted to start a homeless program (with completely zero funding). How and why did this happen? I credit Iain Dejong, CEO of Orgcode, with the very astute observation that many of us did not pick homelessness – homelessness picked us. Please see his video, You Are Awesome —Dedicated to Housing Workers who Believe in Ending Homelessness for a further explanation.

Unfortunately many of my most vocal critics also happen to be the persons closest to me. If you have socialized with me or attended #HIE2017 in Manchester last December, then you know to whom I am referring. I expect critics. I welcome them. I see an opportunity to convert my skeptics with evidence-based practices. After all, I used to be one of the skeptics.

I am accused of being a shameless self-promoter, only interested in my next television sound bite. I disagree. My work speaks for itself. My solutions are innovative and unorthodox. And as a result, the worldwide media has beaten a path to my door (people like good news). What you don’t see is the burden we all carry with us. For every victory, there are even more losses. I receive up to 1,800 phone calls a month. I struggle with compassion fatigue knowing that I do not have enough hours in the day to return their calls. I am haunted everyday by the ghosts of homeless persons that died before I could help them. Yesterday I removed two clients from our HMIS (homeless management information system) that have died. So I attempt to improves someone’s life each day. Even incremental improvements for a client has a cumulative effect.

I attempt to use my increasingly-loud pulpit on the global stage to affect change. I recently wrote about the John Chadwick (Housing Gone Wrong – The Life (and Death) of John Chadwick) whom killed himself after facing separation from his animals. I never thought that this blog would have been read in 46 countries on five continents. This only increases the paradox I face: As I improve my craft, my critics get louder, and so does my frustration.

As I say to the public, I end homelessness so you don’t have to. Most have a glancing concern regarding homelessness: They are only concerned when seeing a rough sleeper on their doorstep. In that situation, homelessness is up 100%. And once they leave, it’s down 100%. What do you think? Are we winning the battle, or should I learn a lesson from the French that know when it’s time to wave the white flag? I know whom agrees with me. So I especially want to hear from those that disagree. Please post your comments below, or you can send an e-mail if you wish to continue the discussion in private,

I already know the answer. I plan to continue. This is my life’s work. In hindsight, I wish I started earlier, and not when I was pushing 50 years old. I’d like to thank some of my inspirations (in no particular order): My partner, Officer Randi Whitney (whom catches serial killers in her spare time); Deputy Stephanie Krager from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office; Thomas Rebman, the homeless teacher, whom learned first-hand the struggles of the homeless; Amy Varle, Susan Dolan, along with the passionate and under-funded gang from Manchester; Dee Bonett in England whom brought my attention to the suffering of John Chadwick; Steve, a local city manager, equally committed to innovation, and gave me my first consulting break; Mariana, my sounding board for many good, and some not so good ideas; the faculty, staff, students and alumni of the USF MPA program, and finally Ian DeJong of Orgcode. I have met him once and most of us consider him to be the greatest mind in ending homelessness.

Please do not read into this blog too much. I am primarily venting and sharing the frustrations that I suspect many of us encounter. There are no hidden messages. I am not looking for sucking up or a pity party. I am not going anywhere (on a professional level, that is; I’m still going to Argentina tomorrow). I am here to stay, and I plan on continuing my work. What do you think? How do you reconcile innovation versus inaction in your field?