In reviewing the Homes for the Hard to House report by St Leonard’s Society of Canada, what struck me was the role that staff play in terms of housing those who have experienced homelessness. The transition in homelessness services through 2000-2010 was on using the language of housing first. Now the common message is housing first with supports. What supports equates to is people, whether on-site of off-site, those who can provide real assistance when individuals experience challenges that put their housing tenure at risk. This report offers some practical tips for those creating housing with supports for individuals who have had difficulty with their housing.
The primary recommendation in the report with regards to staff is to ensure that they are well trained. This of course means individuals with an educational background in human services, such as social work or social service worker training, as well as supplemental certification, and of course work experience. There are so many individuals that I have had the privilege of working with in social services in London who would fit all of these requirements. However, organizations face two very real challenges: 1) staff cost, and 2) finding the right people.
Cost is of course a challenge as social services face limited access to funds at all sources of government. In the context of housing, it may be possible to find funds for capital, but then operations costs of the ‘with supports’ component may be harder to fund. Of course, agencies would be happy to fill their staff compliment with those with a Master’s of Social Work (MSW) degree and 15 years experience, but this comes at a price. There is often a temptation/pressure to decrease your expectations to meet the realities of your budget.
The other challenge is finding the right people; having an MSW degree does not mean you are good at each and every social service position. And, there are many great individuals coming out of various social service programs who would be great in an organization but don’t have the years of work experience on their resume. This is where the suggestion from the report on integrating student placements comes into play to solve both of the concerns I have brought up here. Students can provide service with no cost as part of placement hours. Also, having students in can be a great way to get to know people who might be good for you organization.
However, the primary warning is that students require adequate and appropriate supervision. They are not able to fill in a gap in terms of staffing, but rather can compliment existing staff. So, rather than thinking of student placements as a core solution to staffing, they should be considered a nice supplement, allowing you to provide the full range of services you might otherwise not be able to fund. In this way, no proposal for housing with supports should be dependent on placements to be viable.