Without question, being in a room with 1,500 other caring individuals is an uplifting phenomenon. The level of energy and optimism is so high that it is easy to see the potential for change, for solutions, for achieving positive responses. In early November, I had the privilege of attending the Canadian Alliance for Ending Homelessness National Conference on Ending Homelessness ("CAEH 19," November 4-6, 2019 in Edmonton) representing The United Church of Canada and Coverdale Centre for Women in Saint John, New Brunswick. This intensive two-and-a-half-day experience left me tired, yes, but renewed with hope.
Many of the stories and themes touched on in the keynotes, sessions, and casual conversations resonated with my experiences as a volunteer with Coverdale Centre, as a life-long church volunteer, and as a now-retired social worker. One simple theme kept rising to the surface: collaboration. Certainly not a foreign concept for anyone working in the human services field, but one that we sometimes lose sight of as we focus on limited resources and growing needs.
During my paid career as a government social worker in New Brunswick, I focused on adult services, with both long-term care and disability support programs. The Saint John region is not large in terms of population, but I was often surprised by the number of agencies and programs that provide services. For the most part, we knew of these services and could refer our clients appropriately, but all too often the process was marred by red tape and systemic “silos” that restricted – and constricted – easy access. Everyone benefited when the collaborative spirit was present, but sometimes it seemed that spirit was only present in the unplanned hallway encounters with colleagues from other agencies. Working in isolation, we would often find the perfect program to address a client's needs only to find out it wasn't on our menu of services – meaning it wouldn't be funded. Other times, we would find the program could be accessed, but we were not the right professionals or department to make the referral.
During his opening remarks at the conference, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson stated that there needs to be “sustained and unambiguous” efforts from all levels of government in order to combat homelessness. Iveson is an inspirational politician who has helped move the Edmonton homelessness story in a significantly positive direction – reducing the number of people living without a home in that city by over 40 percent since 2009. During the session “Ending Homelessness,” we heard from city presenters how they achieved that result with a ten-point plan of collaboration.
During the "Family Matters" session, one presenter from Halifax quoted Ontario MPP Adam Vaughan's advice: Collaborate with other like-minded groups working towards the same goal. If they speak from a place of consensus, agencies are more likely to be heard by those in power. At a showing of the documentary Push on Tuesday evening, Vaughan spoke encouragingly of how each of the newly elected federal parties can have a role in moving the country towards eradication of homelessness – by working together.
In the “Street Level Women at Risk” session, presenters from the Street Level Women at Risk (SLWAR) program in London, Ontario talked about the success of their housing first model, which is guided by a Women’s Advisory Group (WAG) that includes women with lived experience of homelessness. The presenters were joined by three members of the WAG, and their stories brought a sense of possibility and hope. The SLWAR model works closely with the London police, the court system, the health care system, and the city housing department to address each individual's situation, to ensure the best outcome.
Another uplifting session was “A Cold Revolving Door,” presented by Family Services of Western Nova Scotia. They talked about the challenges of working in a rural area with small and geographically scattered populations. The message I took from them is that a key ingredient for success is to be open to giving and receiving feedback from everyone involved – service providers and service users alike. It may not always be comfortable, but in order to have the most impact wherever our work takes us, we need to navigate productive relationships with all the parties involved.
As I reflect on my experience at the CAEH conference, I see clearly the importance of collaboration – within our individual agencies, with those who make policy and funding decisions and with those who are living the experience of homelessness. Only by working together and respecting the opinions and skillsets of everyone at the table can we be effective in achieving real and lasting change.
— Lois Irvine is a volunteer and board member with the Coverdale Centre for Women in Saint John, New Brunswick. A retired social worker she is a life-long United Church member currently attending Portland United Church. Raised in Victoria, BC, Lois has spent her adult years as a Maritimer, living in Halifax and now in Saint John. Lois would like to thank the United Church for sponsoring her attendance at the CAEH 19 Conference.