Breaking bad news to affordable housing seekers

Photo credit: Hernan Pinera, Creative Commons, Flickr,

Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news – least of all the good folks who are trying to help Coloradans find much-needed affordable housing.

But it’s brutal out there. So brutal, in fact, that now there’s a talking-points guide for service providers tasked with explaining how few options low-income people have in putting roofs over their heads in Metro Denver.

“By the time people had called us, they sometimes had called six or seven other agencies. When we explained we’re in an affordable housing crisis, they’d say they wished somebody had said that in the first place. There was a need to manage expectations,” says Jill Eelkema, the Denver Regional Council of Governments’ (DRCOG) aging and disability resources manager who thought up the pamphlet as the housing crunch reached record levels late last year.

Published by DRCOG, Colorado Housing Connects and Mile High United Way, the guide is a sign of the times in an era when the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the metro area is $1,265 a month. For workers earning the minimum wage of $8.31 an hour, that amounts to 152 hours of work a month, before taxes. That’s nearly full-time, leaving pretty much nothing left for gas or bus fare or food.

For the scores of Coloradans who can’t pay that kind of rent, waitlists for affordable housing units typically are more than a year long. Some agencies have lists that are so long that they’ve had to stop accepting applications.

There is, so to speak, no room at the inn. Like we said – brutal.

The guide reads like a how-to on how to deliver all manner of heartbreak. Eelkema drew from tips in the Journal of General Internal Medicine on how doctors should tell patients they’re dying. “Give warning that there is bad news,” the pamphlet urges. “Be genuine and honest.” It even offers short scripts on how to respond to clients’ understandably-not-super-psyched reactions.

“You’re quiet – this is really disturbing news to hear,” reads one suggested talking point.

“Are you feeling worried about what you’ll do now?”

And, when all else fails: “I’m so sorry you’re in this situation.”

The guide is meant not only to help service providers communicate more clearly and accurately with the public, but also to help them reduce their own stress. They’re fully aware that housing isn’t the only crisis many of their callers are facing. All too often, the people behind the weary voices are disabled, elderly, sick, mentally ill, single parents, jobless or victims of domestic violence.

“The scenarios are sad,” says Shannon Peer, director of housing counseling for Colorado Housing Connects. “It can affect you and really pile up. Sometimes we have to step away from the phones a bit and decompress.”

As Eelkema tells it, the calls can be particularly dire in January in February. “People manage to keep it together for the holidays and then things fall apart,” she says. The heavy load of calls and level of desperation this time of year takes a toll on her colleagues.

“You get burned out. You can hear it, sometimes, in the tone our team has on the phone. You can see it, sometimes, when someone is talking on the phone with their head on their desk. People are just so incredibly tired,” Eelkema says.

Delivering bad news isn’t a skill taught in most undergraduate or even graduate programs that train social services workers. That’s why last month, the coalition that published the pamphlet teamed up with History Colorado – which currently has an exhibit on homelessness in Colorado – to train more than 200 service providers about ways to more effectively deliver bad news. The groups learned techniques like staying with callers on the phone as they transfer them to other agencies and otherwise helping ward against the all-too-familiar phenomenon known as “bureaucratic fatigue” with emotional support.

“The resources we provide often aren’t always the most valuable piece of what we do,” says Colorado Housing Connects’ Shannon Peer. “Sometimes, the most important thing we can do is just encouraging callers to, no matter what, not give up.”


Photo credit: Hernan Pinera, Creative Commons, Flickr,