Understanding the ‘How’ in Housing First: Part 2 – What sets Housing First frontline workers apart?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about just how important the frontline worker (FLW) role is when it comes to successful delivery of Housing First. More specifically, what are the characteristics that we look for in a good FLW, what sets them apart, and what does the role require?

Looking at our teams in the Netherlands, there are a few characteristics that our FLWs have in common, including flexibility, creativity, curiosity, compassion and authenticity. This essential combination allows our FLWs to adapt to the support needs of Housing First service users, but above all, take a relation-based approach where the strength of the trust built between the FLW and service user is at the core of long-term success.

You could even go so far as to say that with Housing First, there are no “care-workers”, but rather workers who care. And the difference is important, because some traditional approaches to care work are rooted in the idea of maintaining a professional distance, with a degree of standardised formality in interactions with clients. However, for some particularly vulnerable clients, especially those who may have experienced some form of negative institutional experience or abuse by authority figures, this formality and distance can sometimes undermine or slow the building of trust in the service or support relationship.

In Housing First, shedding the “care-worker” persona instead allows the service user to also shake off their “client” persona, thus normalising a mutual, trust-based relationship and laying the foundation for healthy communication, behaviour and recovery.


Dedication, flexibility and creativity

In a way, you could describe a Housing First FLW as a pragmatic free spirit. By this, I mean that they are able to be flexible and creative in their approach to meeting their client’s individual needs, respecting the core principles of Housing First while not being restricted to offering off-the-shelf solutions that may not be well-suited to their clients.

This also implies an underlying dedication to problem-solving amid uncertainty. Housing First adapts to its service users, not the other way around. This means there’s a lot of searching and deliberating involved and you don’t know beforehand which skills you are going to use and what steps you are going to take. The do’s and don’ts for the FLW always stem from the person-centred relationship and it’s very much a tailor-made approach, not a straitjacket. In practice, this involves testing different options and doing the things that work, thinking outside of the box, being a bit rebellious when needed, and always believing there is an alternative.

That said, there is nonetheless fundamental knowledge and skills that every FLW must have at their disposal. A Housing First FLW is still a professional, so training, methodology and regulations are always present, but the difference is that the relationship is always the starting point. As one of our Housing First service users once aptly said: “you’re neither a care-worker nor a friend; you’re something in-between”.


Curiosity, compassion and authenticity

While mutual communication is respectful, warm and compassionate, a Housing First FLW can also be assertive because, as in every good relationship, it’s important that the communication is sincere, but never coercive. When a Housing First professional speaks, it is in a way that is both constructive and direct. The problem- based jargon traditionally used by social workers, which focuses on what people don’t want, on problems, on risks, failures and impossible goals is avoided wherever possible. Instead, the focus is on the power of solution-based phrasings, oriented around the future the client wishes to achieve for themselves, the things they do want to do, exceptions, personal strengths and development, but also on future resources, possibilities and success.

It’s also important to acknowledge that working according to the Housing First approach can sometimes lead to dilemmas, but FLWs are not alone in solving them – there is a strong emphasis on the spirit of a community of practice, whereby problems, ideas and solutions are shared with colleagues. What sets Housing First apart is that these dilemmas are also shared with the service user. FLWs don’t merely talk about the people using our services , we always talk with them as well.

When things are not going according to plan, the dilemmas and deliberations are shared with the service user so that the FLW and service user can evaluate the situation constructively and name the obstacles ahead that prevent an end to the person’s homelessness. This helps the person to recognize their own behavioural patterns that may stand in their way and to subsequently commit to the necessary help. To do this properly, FLWs need to be very self-aware and willing to reflect on every situation from different perspectives, not just their own.

Within Housing First there is the assumption that people have good reasons to do what they do. Every type of behaviour can be viewed as an attempted solution for something. The FLW knows that there is often an unrecognized underlying trauma, and that their role is to listen and be curious about what the person needs, rather than making assumptions.

This is why authenticity is an important requirement in selecting a Housing First Front Line Worker. As an FLW you have the necessary (life) experience and you are aware of your own history, patterns and fears and how they can affect your work. It is only natural for FLWs to have anxieties and biases – we all do. The skill lies in how you choose your actions, in the subtle use of your own experiences. The awareness of your own perceptions comes with realizing that the other person regards the world based on their experiences. The focus is on “what happened to you?” instead of “what is wrong with you?”. Equally important is the FLW’s ability to notice when a customer is able to keep himself going with a less intensive regime or even better, when they can live independently without needing any support at all.


Belief in recovery

As a FLW you truly believe that every human being has the potential to recover, no matter how long the road. The aim is to achieve what is possible, finding a direction and creating something new together. Taking risks is part of this; it provides opportunities to grow. Another of our service users told us that:

“The belief my Front Line Worker showed in me was such that after some time I started to believe in me too. Even after relapses and setbacks this warm and compassionate care made me believe in a different life for myself”.

The ultimate credo is: nobody deserves a last chance. Housing First always offers a hopeful perspective. Our FLWs aren’t there to judge, but to offer possibilities, based on a persistent belief in the good of the people using the service and that a happy outcome is achievable.


Melanie Schmit

About the Author

Melanie Schmit is Co-founder and President of Housing First Nederland, Program Manager of LIMOR and a Housing First Europe Hub certified trainer.

Melanie is passionate about scaling up, further developing, and promoting Housing First in The Netherlands, as well as training groups and organisations on Housing First.

Follow Melanie on social media:
LinkedIn: Melanie Schmit – Voorzitter Housing First Nederland ​| Programmamanager Housing First bij LIMOR

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