Thursday, January 25, 2007

Communities of Empowerment ARE the key to Ending Homelessness!

The Calgary Committee to End Homelessness is now in place, with a mission to end homelessness in 10 years, and we have a recent white paper published by the City of Calgary, which outlines the four strategic steps for ending homelessness in Calgary over over a similar period, namely (copied and pasted from the City of Calgary):
  1. Plan for Outcomes:
    establish solid baseline data and create a planning process that focuses on the outcome of ending homeless, rather than managing it
  2. Close the Front Door:
    reduce the number of people entering the homeless system from other systems such as mental health, justice, and child welfare
  3. Open the Back Door:
    focus on moving individuals into permanent supportive housing as quickly as possible (i.e. housing linked to support services to ensure they remain housed)
  4. Build and Strengthen the Infrastructure:
    deal with the root causes of homelessness (e.g. address poverty, develop supportive
    and affordable housing, institute creative land use policies, ensure supports such as
    rent subsidies)
These are admirable, noble and achievable aims, using a top-down approach that relies on concerted contribution from governmental and non-governmental entities. However, are they likely to be successful? Like any change that is defined and driven from the top-down, the biggest challenge will be so-called "buy-in" from the people outside of the design process who need to be involved in the creation of the change that will eventually trickle through them. Ideally a tipping point must be sought so that the change is drawn-through, rather than pushed down.

In the case of ending homelessness, the "problem" is not people not having a roof over their head. The problem is what we create when we encounter anyone who presents a view of the world that conflicts with our belief about what is real. A homeless person often challenges our delusion of security and strength by reminding us just how frail our existence is, for example, and we tend to react in one of three ways to the unreal or strange: fight, flee or fix - all standard, proven strategies for problem solving. With ending homelessness we can fix the material needs of some of the people with a roof, we can make land and buildings more affordable and we can reduce the numbers of people "falling through the cracks" of the penal, mental health and welfare systems. However, as long as I see a bum on the street, he will still be a bum when he has a roof over him - and the 10 year plan will have eradicated one form of homelessness and replaced it with another.

Homelessness is a state of not feeling like you have a home, and we confuse the word "home" with "house". "Home IS where the heart is" and that means knowing I belong here, knowing I can safely grow here, knowing I can take responsibility, try and possibly fail here and know there is space to forgive, be forgiven and be generous of spirit. To me, "Home" is all those things and it is not a state that is commonly achievable alone. Actually, at home I also have a responsibility to others as well as myself. I am co-responsible for making and supporting a space that fosters a sense of belonging, personal mastery, independence and generosity towards others.

So you see that "home" is a system of responsible, interdependent people who look out for each other as well as themselves. And because we are thankfully all different as human beings, this system of co-activity is in a permanent state of flux. You could say that home is a process.

Unless the City of Calgary, The Calgary Committee to End Homelessness, you and I also work responsibly towards ensuring "home" is possible for people experiencing harsh circumstances, we will only ever be issuing top-down fixes and turning a blind eye to a shifting problem of prejudice, mistrust and occasional open warfare. From the bottom up, the feeling will be justified in our minds that the top layer are, once again, "throwing good money after bad" and the problem will entrench even further into the cracks of our communities.

I propose that simply moving that which makes us uncomfortable out of sight is not sustainable, not a good use of resources and is a waste of a huge economic potential in unrecognized talent. Our opportunity is to embrace that which we believe we cannot be with in our lives, learn to love it and eradicate fear. The opportunity is for society to focus on eradicating the FEAR OF HOMELESSNESS AND HOMELESS PEOPLE - it is only then that the problem will evaporate; it is a problem we non-homeless folks have made up in our minds, which is a reflection of who we are, rather than who they are. After that we'll see clearly enough to be with people experiencing a rough time in their lives and create the empowering sense of home that will have them punch through the walls of self doubt and become great assets to our society.

And there is still something missing. It IS the key. What is missing in all this is "Community". "Home" is at the core of community because community could be described as a mutually supportive grouping of people who feel "at home", a "meta-home", if you will. It is only by creating a sense of "homeliness" in community that the space and permission will be granted for homeless people to truly try to become great. There is no reason why you couldn't be voting for someone who is or was homeless into high office; why not?

Homelessness is a gift to our communities. It is a chance for us to take a good look at ourselves and notice where we can create a stronger sense of belonging for ourselves and others, where we can grow and encourage growth better, where we allow free action and engender higher respect for differences of opinion and appearence and where we feel free to be more generous and accept what others bring heartily. It is a chance for us to invite "the homeless" home, and be prepared to be changed as a result. The homeless issue is finally a chance for Calgary to lead Canada by example and show that Calgary is "the Heart of Canada".

So how do we go about it? A clue is in remembering that home is a process, that is both personal (internal) and collective (external), and that community can be thought of as a "meta-home". So we can decide that a combination of inside-out and outside-in approaches can be made. Also, it will serve to remember that the "un-housed" portion of the homelessness puzzle is the bit that ordinary people have little contact with or feeling of responsibility for, tending, as they would, to assume that it would be taken care of by others. But that personal and collective responsibility is at the core of the individuals in any "homely" organizational system.

So I propose the answer lies somewhere in an approach that builds community spirit and responsibility so that ALL people are encouraged to belong, to grow, to act and possibly fail and to give and receive of each other, regardless of housed status.

The outside-in and inside-out approach is not just a personal/collective perspective, it extends out with a ripple effect from each of us, so that all of the organizational systems to which we all belong resonate with the sense of "home". Practically, this means not just creating stronger communities at the City level, but also at the shelter and welfare provision level, remembering, most importantly, that homeless people are an essential, vibrant, high-potential part of all of those systems and the interwoven systems to which they belong.

So let's look for opportunities to strengthen the sense of home in individual shelters, in the community of all the shelters, in the community of local government, provincial and federal, in the social networks of all volunteers and their networks, in companies and in a sense of purpose of every resident in the city.

What I propose could be a vast or complicated undertaking, so we must either be clever or we can die going for broke. I opt for the "clever" road. Focus on building "homeliness" in communities that will demonstrate a high impact and invite more outside-in participation until tipping point is reached, and target the communities that will encourage empowerment from the inside out. This might be called the "low hanging fruit approach" to community empowerment; and only pick the biggest, juiciest low-hangers.

An example of an inside-out community that will create a massive impact on the confidence of the homeless population is the currently fractured system of all the shelters, their staff and their guests. The work would be served by including the supporting systems of police, probation, EMS and other services not employed but interconnected with the shelters. The opportunity for the shelters is to earn the right to be at the high table of the Committee to End Homelessness by putting ideological and fund-competing differences aside and align under one flag, say the flag of "empowering homeless people", so they can share best and worst practices freely and not be afraid of losing the attention of backers or even losing face. "Align" is the key word here, because this allows for all the shelters to preserve their uniqueness, yet all serve the same cause.

An example of an outside-in community that is already starting to form is the Calgary Committee to End Homelessness. How can they engender homeliness and spread that spirit out to their interconnected systems of relationships, in a spirit of reaching out the invitational hand of fellow-humanity to the poor, disenfranchised and unhoused? One way would be to learn about homelessness and homeless people by actually meeting them where they are, practice seeing them as human beings and really be listening. The Committee could also unite under one flag: "shifting the public perceptions of homelessness" - this would ensure the foundations are laid for far more than affordable houses into the future - the chance to build a strong, courageous and kind heart in the Heart of Canada.

Thank you.
Phil Durnford
Calgary, Canada

"Community is a process" is a mantra of sociology education. An excellent model for community that presents itself at this time, which serves to explain the value of community is the Circle of Courage model, after Brendtro, Brokenleg and Van Bockern (1990). Circle of Courage is taken from Native American tradition and has been applied commonly to classroom management and "reclaiming" disaffected Native young people, yet it is a powerful model for building and strengthening any community, including the communities in which Homeless people reside, in my opinion.
THANK YOU to Allan Broughton, a talented coach in the Stone Soup project, for highlighting some areas of improvement which led to this version of this article and also to Suzanne Jacket of Herizon Coaching for her support.

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