In November I was a delegate from the Downtown Eastside to the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH) national conference in Montreal. It was a little bizarre, eating expensive lunches while people panhandled on the streets outside.
I was fortunate to be there, on a lived experience scholarship. This scholarship was meant to include those who had been homeless in a conference dominated by social service administrators, academics, and social workers. Our scholarship group of “people with lived experience” included people from across the country, as well as those who lived in the host city, Montreal.
The official welcome to the territory was done by a Cree woman, but for me the real welcome came from a young Mohawk man who spied us during a walking tour at Cabot Square. He welcomed us traditionally to his territory and proceeded to tell us about homelessness from his experience. Some of the CAEH conference participants looked uncomfortable, but he was the real deal.
Some of the local Montreal lived experience folks at the conference suggested that instead of hiring speakers, the conference should get homeless people to speak and perform. As well, they said there should have been a presentation from the host city about homelessness in Montreal. They also thought the conference should hire homeless youth to be guides or volunteers, and suggested that someone from Montreal be in the room set aside for lived experience folks, so that they can guide people and be there as a resource for people.
This year was better than last for the inclusion of low-income community voices, which is ironic, because, like last year, this year there was again a call from conference delegates for more content from those who have lived experience of homelessness. Last year, those of us with lived experience were given five minutes to address everyone with our statement of principles for inclusion called “Nothing About Us Without Us.” This statement came out of discussions we had as we formed a Lived Experience Advisory Council (LEAC) at the conference in 2014. Although there has been some progress in involving low-income people, thanks to the work of the LEAC, there is still a way to go.
Some mentioned they felt they weren’t welcome to join the rest of the conference and participate just like anyone else. After some people were asked if they were with the lived experience group, they were told to go to the “Lived Experience” room.
This year, there were two workshops run by those with lived experience. One outlined our statement of guiding principles and showed how including people with lived experience is crucial, and has started to occur across the country.
The other was an “activists and allies” workshop where we all sat in a circle and Kym Hothead Hines of Victoria led us in a discussion. One woman, a government worker, noted that there was a lot of anti-government sentiment there, and she said that sometimes governments do good things.
We also heard from refugees and their workers about how hard it is to find housing when there’s discrimination, and refugees only get paid whatever the welfare rate is in the province they’re in. It was important to hear those comments because they are not heard a lot.
Housing First is the main model that is put forth by the CAEH, and one of the results of this policy is that government funding has been cut for other programs, such as advocacy and job creation, in both Montreal and Vancouver.
Also, it is great to say, “We’ll put all our money into Housing First” but it also needs to include on-going supports for people and include ways to keep housing. And even more basic, in many areas, there just isn’t housing available and the housing that exists is unaffordable for low-income people. Pressure needs to be put on governments to build social housing at welfare/pension rates.