Around 2013, I wrote a Manifesto. I wrote it out of anger, at a time when I was done with other people, organizations, and entities constantly defining who we were as an organization and coming to wild and inaccurate conclusions about where we were headed. As naive as it was in hindsight, it was born of a time and place where we needed to put our foot down and clearly explain our intentions or our "why". I was pissed, so I sat down, hammered it out in one take, and posted it. I had no inkling that it would resonate with people, but it did. When it did, I was nervous, excited, and humbled.
Fast forward to 4 years later and so much has changed. Recently, we've gone through what I would describe colloquially as a "rough time". For the organization itself, my coworkers, and myself personally. So, being the true believer in extreme ownership that I am, I owned the place we were, humbled myself before my failures and to my colleagues, called on people smarter than myself for help, and got to work fixing things. Lo and behold, in a truly "holy shit" moment for me, the Manifesto provided us with a framework to craft a plan to reorganize and restructure the entire organization.
Now, I can neither grasp entirely why the Manifesto provided such an anchor, or foundation for people outside our organization or even for ourselves, and I generally regard everything I write as so much nonsense, but if I were to be objective, I would say that the Manifesto was helpful and a guide simply in its blunt simplicity. It was neither flowery, nor philosophical as I am often prone to being, but got right to the point and hammered it home simply and efficiently.
If you didn't read the 2013 Manifesto, please feel free to do so at your leisure: https://www.wvceh.org/blog/the-manifesto.html. For those who are busy and revel in the "Cliff's Notes" experience, let me break it down for you really quickly. In the Manifesto, I hit on the five main competencies that I wanted the world to know. I kicked it straight about who we were and what we believed, including:
1. Ending Homelessness: I intimated that we weren't here to manage homelessness, nor bandy about going to meetings and talking about how we thought it was a swell idea, but that we were here to do work. That our intention was to work ourselves out of jobs and go sell insurance, or start a vegan bakery or something. Essentially that we were the real deal and not a bunch of political posers.
2. Using Evidence: I regaled the viewer with the fact that we despise bullshit and love reality. That we were interested in doing more of what works and less of what doesn't.
3. Collaboration: I called upon the gods of "systems theory" and coherent goals to let everyone know that we couldn't be hot shit in a vacuum. That others had to come along with us in pursuit of this goal of ending homelessness. That using "our" a lot more and "my" a lot less made sense to me.
4. Creating Solutions: I was sick of people coming to weird conclusions based on nonsense. Arguments, territoriality, and the like was getting us nowhere. Figuring out ways around barriers was (and still is) working.
5. Changing: I needed to send a message that once you get comfortable with us being one thing, hold on to your hat, because we were probably going to be something different soon. We've struggled with this internally as well as externally, with staff finding it daunting to move toward change, and outside entities constantly desiring us to operate from an historic framework for the sake of comfort.
And that was it. The thing that got a moderate amount of attention. It was our frustration boiled down into less than half a dozen concepts that guide us still. That being said, all things need revisiting; updating (see #5 above). So, given our recent move toward restructuring to meet the needs presented to us, it's time to add some concepts to the Manifesto:
- Simplicity: We're not really interesting in taking part in any more flashy campaigns. We don't need big hands, standing ovations, or slaps on the back. We'll be boiling down our mission, functions, and trajectory into very simple, graspable directions. There won't be much room for interpretation: we'll do whatever it takes to ensure that people in West Virginia (or in the United States) who are living on the street are found, assisted, and kept in housing should that be something they desire. We'll create the space for them to succeed. Show them what someone believing in them looks like. Learn from them. And then we'll move on to other people who need the same thing. Some people will love what we're doing. Some people won't like it (or us) at all, if history tells us anything. That's okay; when you are tethered to a clear mission and purpose, popularity contests don't really hold much allure. If an endeavor does not move us closer to ending homelessness, we will not be taking part in it.
- Perseverance: No more excuses. No more pointing to the political climate, uneven resources, backwards culture, lack of money, or other issues in not moving forward. No more drama. No more mythology. For example, I do not love the idea that we have to arm our outreach folks, case managers, and mainstream benefits navigators with Naloxone. But, we are dealing with an unprecedented number of overdoses, and we're going to need to be prepared as much as we can. I do not love that we have multiple streams of funding, requiring multiple mounds of paperwork, multiple budgets, and constant time and effort in keeping things straight. But, that bureaucratic nightmare is the only way we can fund positions to work on systemic and pragmatic ways to end homelessness in West Virginia. It just is. Iain DeJong said to us not too long ago, "time to stop worrying about the "what if's" and start worrying about the "what now's". We must grind whatever grist the mill requires.
- Creativity: Barriers are meant to be avoided, moved around, or smashed. We'll figure things out. We won't blame circumstances, agencies, or people. We'll view a problem, dissect it, come up with a plan, and surmount the problem one way or another. We'll think of things that other people don't. Some will work, and some will not. We won't accept the status quo just because someone says we should. We'll think broadly and weirdly about our place in the world and how we can better fit to provide people housing. We'll use our heads more than our hearts and work the problems that we run into until they cease to be problems (or don't really matter).
- Failure is an Option: You can't get good at things if you don't try them, screw up, re-adjust, and refine them…over and over again. Nothing kills innovation like creating a punitive fear matrix every time someone is being creative and screwing up. Now, that's different from intentionally doing things that don't make sense, and we have to be mindful of the seriousness of us holding the fate of very vulnerable people's lives in our hands, but trial and error, variation and selection are valuable tools in making progress. You don't have to be an expert in ending homelessness or have "degree alphabet soup" after your name to discern what is working and what is not. You mostly have to be flexible, be well-rooted in your own fallibility, and be willing to apply common sense when letting go of mistakes that maybe took you a really long time to make.
- Games are Lame: Egos are hard. The "god complex" lives in all of us. That ideal that we are somewhat infallible. We don't like being wrong…any of us. Not too long ago, I saw a discussion on a Facebook Hub seeking advice about ending a debate over "what the police are to call people experiencing homelessness in our city". It was a dumb discussion, and I almost leapt in and said "house them and the cops can call them Larry, Megan, or David…whatever their name is". Recreational outrage, cries of "offensiveness", and other things of that ilk rob us of energy and positive thought by creating distractions. Action always trumps indecisive discussion. Arguing over territory, money, and meaningless crap is a waste of time. We're on the clock here. Every minute we screw around, someone on the street may be paying the price with their lives. Are you willing to gamble someone's life on you being right or feeling good about yourself? More to the point, would you make that choice if the life on the line was someone you knew and loved like a child, parent, or a spouse? Then don't do it with people experiencing homelessness because they are those things to someone. Get over yourself.
Right now, there's enough malaise going around for all of us. That doesn't mean we quit. It doesn't even mean that we take a break. Now, more than ever, we should be realigning ourselves to be faster, leaner, meaner, and more effective. We should be built for the famine, not the feast. In the immortal words of Sean Connery in "The Untouchables" "What are you prepared to do?"