As I boarded my flight to Vancouver a few weeks ago for the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness conference CAEH14, I received an invitation on Facebook to a protest … AGAINST the conference.
BUILD HOMES NOW! the virtual flyer proclaimed. The text below decried the medical and police control of poor and Indigenous people’s lives and bodies via state and NGO responses to homelessness. The “elite class of managers” attending CAEH14 was complicit in this régime of control, the flyer declared. It concluded:
“The Social Housing Alliance calls for a major mobilization to confront, expose, and oppose the government policies and NGO industries that manage homeless, low-income, and Indigenous people without challenging or disrupting the systems and social conditions that cause homelessness and poverty.”
Even though the call-out positioned me, as a conference attendee, firmly on the “them” side in its us-versus-them divide, I was glad to be invited. I can’t really deny being part of an “elite class of managers” – after all, “manager” is in my job title, and being a white, salaried university researcher who owns a house in downtown Toronto positions me as elite in comparison with most Canadians. But I believe that makes it all the more important that I refuse to be complicit in the management and perpetuation of homelessness. Like many of my colleagues, I have dedicated my professional work to challenging the systems and social conditions that cause homelessness, and I am also an activist on my own time. Besides, I enjoy sitting around and talking as much as the next academic, but let’s face it: conferences will not end homelessness. I looked forward to being part of something more direct.
That was how I came to find myself, the next evening, locked outside the conference hotel in the rain. It was a surreal scene: outside in the courtyard, dozens of homeless people and allies, waving red banners and chanting; inside the glass causeway above, hundreds of conference delegates, enjoying wine and salmon skewers. And between us, a line of police and hotel security, barricading the lobby. Two groups of people working to end homelessness, one being “protected” by armed police from the other.
Things heated up quickly. A guard crushed a protestor’s hand in a revolving door as he tried to push his way in, and the mood turned angry, with some activists pounding on the lobby windows. More CAEH14 attendees came down to join the demonstration but were prevented from exiting by guards who told them that the doors must be kept locked. Eventually, after some speeches, the demonstrators dispersed, leaving behind a wet stack of real and satirical research reports. Like the “house” I once saw in Toronto made of reports on homelessness, all that paper melting in the rain was a poignant reminder of how little positive change has come from decades of committed research and policy advocacy. Small wonder that it looks like a waste of time and money to people struggling for survival.
One could easily imagine that in some penthouse restaurant nearby, the real architects of the fiscal policies responsible for homelessness—development industry lobbyists and the elected officials whose policies protect their interests—were looking over the kerfuffle below and raising a toast that, yet again, they had managed to get us fighting amongst ourselves instead of against their agenda.
This was as close as Canadian conferences on homelessness have gotten to the 1989 International Conference on AIDS in Montréal, at which 300 AIDS activists stormed in uninvited and seized the mic at the opening plenary to (un)officially open the conference on behalf of people with AIDS, receiving a standing ovation even from many of the scientists present. That demonstration and the changes that followed it radically altered research and practice on HIV/AIDS. In claiming their place at the table, the protestors ushered in a new era in which people with AIDS and the organizations that represent them are included in framing policies and programs, defining research priorities and ethics, and providing services. The inclusion, leadership, and unique perspectives of those directly affected have been critical to global progress in this sector, and have influenced other sectors as well.
In comparison, input and leadership by people facing homelessness have been almost absent at homelessness conferences I’ve attended in the past. At previous national conferences in Calgary in 2009, Montréal in 2010, and Ottawa in 2013, there was little formal representation of people facing homelessness. These conferences hosted hundreds of attendees and offered dozens of workshops, but few were from the perspective of lived experience. A handful of people facing homelessness and anti-poverty activists were present as delegates, but there was no space in which to connect with each other and formulate demands to bring to the conference as a whole. Meanwhile, elected officials whose policies are directly responsible for homelessness were received at plenaries with polite applause and a disheartening absence of jeering, banner-unfurling, fake-blood-squirting, or other forms of direct action. Overall, at these gatherings, people facing homelessness were talked about, not with, and for the most part this talk lacked the urgency of direct engagement with a life-threatening catastrophe. Many of the academics, policy makers, and service providers in attendance were staunch anti-homelessness advocates, but our discussions took place in the absence of an organized, visible collectivity of people living in poverty to challenge our analyses and investments.
The All Our Sisters conferences on women and homelessness in London, Ontario in 2011 and 2014 have offered an alternative model, grounded in feminist praxis. Both conferences included a critical mass of delegates facing homelessness—about one in four attendees—whose registration fees and travel costs were covered by the conference. Workshops and plenary sessions included a balance of expertise from research, services, activism, and lived experience. There was a room set aside for delegates facing homelessness to connect with each other and take a break from the sometimes-alienating conference culture. In 2014, the conference was co-chaired by a group of women facing homelessness, and even included a demonstration that was organized from within the conference.
I had the good fortune to be involved with two research teams at All Our Sisters 2011 that built on the theme of inclusion and leadership of women with lived experience. One, which we dubbed the Good Practices Project, presented the findings of participatory research examining organizational practices that support leadership and inclusion. The second was an initiative sponsored by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness to bring together women facing homelessness who had been involved in community-based participatory research. A Homeless Hub report summarizes the insights shared by this group over the course of several meetings and workshops during the conference.
The good news is, many of the lessons from the All Our Sisters model were brought forward successfully into this year’s conference in Vancouver. The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness and Canadian Observatory on Homelessness sponsored the attendance of more than 40 delegates with lived experience, including some local activists who had also helped organize the protest. Two workshops focused on inclusion, several others featured presenters with lived experience, and a convening space was made available for people facing homelessness and allies to re-charge and collaborate.
Delegates facing homelessness seized these opportunities. One group developed a declaration of principles for inclusion of people with lived experience, while a second brought forward ideas for connecting with local activists at future conferences. Several key leaders in these discussions were women who had participated in the inclusion initiatives at All Our Sisters, demonstrating that leadership opportunities make future innovations possible. In response to the interventions of these groups, the CAEH announced the implementation of a Lived Experience Advisory Council. This body will, no doubt, further improve representation of people facing homelessness, and communication with local activist networks, at CAEH15 in Montréal. Which is good, since you don’t want to land on the wrong side of Montréal activists.
This is a promising beginning that I hope will unleash the hybrid power of researchers, policy advocates, and service providers making common cause with people facing homelessness and activists. While no one can say whether this will bring an end to homelessness, I believe it’s the only thing that could.