Housing and homelessness organizations tend to have one, if not two, primary windows into the organization as a whole. The first is reception. The second is outreach. This blog focuses on reception.
Managerially and operationally, I like organizations to think of reception as air traffic control, not as an administration or greeting function. While administration and greeting may occur within reception, it doesn’t matter what type of program you operate, the orientation has to be towards air traffic control.
Air traffic control knows all the air traffic in their general area. If it is on radar, it is asked to identify itself if it hasn’t already done so. Reception, at some level, needs to know who all is in their area. Anonymity doesn’t cut it.
Air traffic control knows which aircraft are seeking to land. In the context of homeless and housing service delivery, reception needs to know which people are accessing resources to “make a landing” versus those that have enough fuel to travel through and have alternate plans.
If there is a landing – even a temporary one to refuel – air traffic control knows about it. Airplanes don’t sneak into airports and just arrive at the gate. People should not be able to just slip into a drop-in or day program without connectivity to reception in housing and homelessness service delivery. And yes, that applies to “low barrier” programs too.
Upon arrival at the airport, ground operations – which may be organized and/or communicated through air traffic control – tells aircraft which airstrip to land on, where to vector, and which gate to park at. Reception has a duty to get inbound individuals/families to the people that can best assess their needs for the right programs at the right time to end their homelessness.
Air traffic control deals with competing interests of inbound aircraft, as well as dealing with issues of those that weren’t planning on landing, but need to. Reception, too, plays a vital role of managing competing interests. But this can’t be based upon emotion or intuition. It has to be based upon facts and needs. It is through reception that high performing organizations are able to facilitate the right type of assessment.
Air traffic control is the first point of contact with a specific airport. Reception is the first point of contact with a housing or homelessness serving agency. When the right information is provided, regardless of the conditions, there is a smooth landing and taxi to the gate at the airport. When the right information is provided by reception, regardless of conditions, there is smooth alignment of needs to programs that can meet needs.
Upon landing at an airport, airplanes and its passengers are further assisted by signage. There are clear directions of where you are and where to go. “Wayfinding” helps ensure that aircraft aren’t bumping into each other; that pilots know where the end of the runway is; that passengers know what terminal they are in; that people find their luggage (assuming it made it on the plane); etc. Any reception area worth its salt has to have clear signage and communication so that people know exactly where to go within reception to get the services that they need.
Here are some general suggestions, then, for your reception:
- It is not a junior or entry-level position within your organization. Staff it with someone knowledgeable of all of your organization’s programs, and has likely spent time shadowing or working in each of them.
- Offer signage in multiple languages that is easily understood. Avoid jargon that a newly homeless person or family would find difficult to follow.
- Filling out forms and the like should happen when people are connected to the right program, not in reception.
- Keep things moving in the reception. Do not create an environment where people can just “hang out” without connecting to service.
- Experiment with the right staffing number to address the volume of people that are steered through reception. Keep in mind that the staffing volume will be greater during a transition program if your current reception does not perform these functions.
- Manners go a long way. Respectfully determine why each person is at your organization. Even low-barrier services should be focusing on ending homelessness and reception should reflect that.
- Case managers, case advocates, immediate support workers, etc. should take their cue through reception of which individuals to engage with that day and why when services can be provided without an appointment.