Takeaways from the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness Conference: Nigel

Admin Note: Today's post comes from Nigel, a steering committee member with Poverty Talks!, as well as a member of the Communications team. He, along with fellow steering committee Amber had the opportunity to attend the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness conference in Hamilton Ontario. While they did not attend on behalf of Poverty Talks!, they have offered to use their experience and bring their knowledge back to members.




Last Fall I had the pleasure of attending the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness Conference held in Hamilton, Ontario. This actually was not my first time attending - though it was the first time I attended at the invite of the conference organizers as part of the Lived Experience scholarship where people who are or were homeless get to attend.

Now I was homeless for over eight years, and even when I was homeless, I was actively involved in civil liberties for the homeless, so that's the perspective I tend to view things from when I attend these conferences.

First, I'd like to go into the conference itself before discussing the "nitty gritty" of what I learned. There were some changes this year I appreciated, though there could still be some improvements. This year held the largest contingency of Lived Experience members, and there were many more sessions that had varying degrees of Lived Experience involvement. Additionally, like previous conferences, there was a "Lived Experience" room, a safe place for people who had been homeless to spend time with peers and available peer support workers. This year, attendees could choose to either have their meals in the banquet hall or in the Lived Experience room. Improvements in the area of Lived Experience involvement could include having more sessions created and directed by those with Lived Experience of Homelessness rather than just including them, as well as more sessions intentionally created for Lived Experience attendees.

Another thing I noticed was that the conference could easily fill a Buzzword Bingo card. I get the feeling that some of the greatest ideas in how to end homelessness has been reduced to simple buzzwords and fads and I worry that in a couple of years these ideas will be long forgotten as they get replaced by the next industry fad. Ideas such as Peer Support, Coordinated Access and Housing Focused should not be reduced to simple fads, but are core philosophies in efforts to end homelessness - some good, some not so good - but should not be reduced to simple trends.

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Now onto some knowledge I brought back - or at the very least, thoughts during sessions I attended. The three sessions I focused on were:

  • Coordinated Access Basics
  • How Shelters Can Become Engines of Ending Homelessness
  • Realizing the Right to Housing in Canada Through the National Housing Strategy
Rather than discuss the sessions individually, I wanted to kind of discuss them all at once as there is overlap in learnings and criticisms. In terms of coordinated access and Housing Focused shelters, the idea is that through a single point of entry, people who are homeless or in a crisis that will result in homelessness, they get put into multiple lines based on needs. these needs are charted based on specific needs, such as mental health, addiction, expecting mothers, etc, as well as taking into account priority based on assessment scores. 

There was an emphasis on a single physical point of entry, but I disagree. Falling in with how shelters can become more housing focused, I feel that shelters should be a point of triage for entering housing. While everyone would go through the same intake process for being on the list, and are all put into the same line before their casefiles are distributed to the various waiting lists, people should be able to get an assessment done at any shelter in the region and outreach teams should also be able to perform assessments for people who are unable or unwilling to stay at shelters.

There was also mentions of ensuring every staff member is able to pressure clients to obtain housing and that clients should check in regularly about their position on the waiting list in order to maintain their position. This... kind of sounds like bullying to me? Hard to say specifically, but generally - especially when crossed over with the "right to housing" - it sounds like we're doubling our efforts to blame the victims of oppression as being at fault for their homelessness and forcing them to prove their worth. I am a firm believer that this should not be standard practice.

Their were great ideas too though. Ideas and practices that I absolutely would love if agencies and shelters should adopt, and I would love to highlight those here too. First, organizations need to get rid of so-called "unwritten rules." Every client is on an equal playing field, with no "side doors" or queue jumping. Any lifetime bans need to be revisited. No ban should be lifetime, and all bans should be reviewed periodically. 

It was also emphasized that clients need to be able to pass on housing they feel doesn't suit their needs without fear of reprimand. If a client passes on housing, it gets offered to the next person on the list, but the client would still be first in line for the next available housing opportunity. This runs counter to current practice where clients are expected to take whatever they get with gratitude, and if they pass on an opportunity that doesn't suit their needs they are often removed from waiting lists or sent to the bottom. That's a practice that must end, and I can completely get behind this alternate approach.

It was also mentioned that most shelters - and probably any organization that works with the homeless community - have what's known as "Martin Rules." Where every place has a rule put in policy just because "Martin did something once." Martin of course, is fictional. But the idea of chipping away at the liberties of everyone in a shelter just because one person abused the liberties he had is also something I dealt with a lot during my time in the shelters. It made shelters miserable places to be. This idea of intentionally making shelters miserable because otherwise "clients would never want to leave" must end, and at the conference sessions, the speakers were very clearly in agreement. Shelters must be places of safety for the clients and the rules must be there primarily for the safety of the clients before the anything else. Not to say that staff safety shouldn't be a consideration of course, but safety of the client (or "end user" as the speaker often said) must be first. This would be a complete paradigm shift for shelter operation in Calgary and I would love to see it move forward.

Any changes of course towards the benefits of the clients is going to be difficult, and the speakers also echoed this. Expect staff turnover at all levels. Reform can conflict with people who liked "the way we've always done things" and this means that sometimes staff will be lost, managers will be lost, and even executives might have to be lost. Their also needs to be political will at the board level. All this can create a sense of instability on the clients, so that needs to be kept in mind when implementing any reforms.

As critical as I often am with conferences like this, a lot of the ideas presented gave me hope for the future. As I've often said "Homeless Management isn't bad. Homeless Micromanagement is bad." I have hope that if the right ideas are implemented - not as fads, but as core philosophies for how organizations operate - we can create a world that is safer and more dignifying for our most vulnerable. That begins with engaging members of the homeless and housing first communities, and including them in the reform process - something also echoed at the conference. I look cautiously forward to seeing what happens between now and next year's conference in Edmonton.
Takeaways from the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness Conference: Nigel Takeaways from the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness Conference: Nigel Reviewed by Poverty Talks! on 10:15 AM Rating: 5

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