Thursday, March 13, 2014

Social Inclusion and the Homeless -- Not for Vegans!

Social Inclusion and the Homeless -- Not for Vegans!

Ah, the elusive task of social inclusion.  I have been plugging away at my new job, trying to bring the voice of people who have experienced homelessness to the table in the discussion about ending homelessness.  It's rough sometimes, the goal is not always clear.  I realized that I needed to define exactly what social inclusion is, so I came up with an acronym that may not sit well with vegans:

Social Inclusion needs to be MEATIER:

Meaningful: The people on the street have been through so much, they simply don't have the time for tokenism.  If they think you are wasting their time with yet another survey, they will just not show up.  This requires some careful listening, and a good deal of thought about what "meaningful" means.

Early: When you have built the social housing project, staffed it, and projected the budget for the next ten years, it's NOT a good idea to consult the homeless at this point.  Heck, its not even helpful to consult them midway through, because their voices will be drowned out in the sea of egos that usually surrounds projects.  Go to them FIRST, not as an afterthought.  This is directly tied to "Meaningful," because the sooner you get involved in a project, the more influence you have.

Accessible: Somebody once told me the first thing you need to do when faced with an oppressed person is to ask what they need.  I follow that rule the best I can, and make meeting areas handy, provide bus tickets, food at the meetings(in case it overlaps with community meals), and I try to contact people in a way that they can access, be it email, phone call, or face to face chat.  Make it easy for the homeless to interact, and they are happy to participate.  Accessible also means accommodating their conversation style-- do they prefer one-on-one, or group discussion?  Every person needs different things, my job is to customize inclusion to each individual.

Tangible: There's little point in having a great conversation with a homeless person, only to walk away with nothing on paper.  Taking minutes, notes, and listing out themes helps create a tangible outcome from interactions.  This is the other side of meaningful-if it is meaningful, write it down!

Innovative: When it comes to homelessness, we have been doing the same thing each year, hoping for better results, but it can sometimes feel like we are going in circles.  Maybe we are doing it wrong.  Maybe it's time to shake things up, to do something different.  Are there unlikely allies that may be helpful?  A new place to have a meeting?  A new way to have a meeting?  How about a group bike ride? Life is too short to repeat yourself until you die, stretch those creative muscles!

Energizing: If it's not feeding you, then you are starving.  If you start a project, but there are sighs around the room, if the project just won't pick itself up and move forward, you may have to stop and take a look.  Perhaps this is a good time to ask if the discussion is meaningful and tangible.

Reciprocal: This is a good test to see if what you are doing is really inclusive.  When you plug into something, it plugs into you.  If we want to involve street-experienced people in our community discussions, what are WE hoping to learn from THEM?  If the answer is nothing, then it's probably not real inclusion.  Real inclusion must co-exist with the idea that there is a mutual benefit to all parties, or it will fall flat.  So what are YOU hoping to learn from the homeless?

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Big change in my career!  I am honoured to accept the position of Social Inclusion Coordinator at the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness.  I am taking some time to meet the folks I will be working with for the next chapter of my life, and they are amazing! I feel very lucky to be living in a community that is pulling together to take action on homelessness, and my job will be to facilitate the efforts and the voices of those who are or have experienced homelessness. This move comes at a time when I have personally come to see social inclusion as a prerequisite for ending homelessness.  As I have said in many ways, people on the street are no different than anybody else, they just find themselves in circumstances beyond their control.  I would also add that most homeless people have social connections, they simply lack housing connections. 

This job is a big task, but I am up for it.  After spending about 8 years in the front line of service provision, I have a strong understanding of the view from the ground, and I hope to use my knowledge to foster inclusion.  We have a local Social Inclusion Advisory Committee made up of people who have experienced homelessness, and they are passionate, articulate, and self-empowering.  It's such an honour to work with them...

Monday, April 22, 2013

Ending Homelessness: What REALLY Works:

I thought I would put together a collection of things that I think every case planner, outreach worker, shelter worker, and homeless supporter needs to have in their toolbox:

1) Good rapport.  I can't stress this one enough.  If you are not feeling comfortable with your client, chances are they are not feeling comfortable with you either.  Get another worker to help connect, or take the conversation back to basics.  If you feel like you are going around in circles, it could be that the person you are working with is keeping you at bay because they don't trust you.  A couple of questions to ask yourself: Are you actually trustworthy, or are you serving your own ego here? Have you spent enough time getting to know the person you are sitting with?  Is there a different conversation topic that might be better than the one you are having?  Consider getting out of the office with your client, if that is possible.  How about grabbing a coffee somewhere?  Some people like to talk while walking- it breaks tension.

2) Use technology!  At this point, I can walk up to a homeless person on the sidewalk with my tablet, and if they are willing, I can help them apply for social assistance, a birth certificate, or addictions treatment on the spot.  I can also get them in touch with their family.  Heck, if they are willing and lucky enough to have a net savvy family, I might be able to skype someone they haven't seen in 10 years-- right there on the sidewalk.  Every person you work with should have an email address.  If they don't, take 10 minutes and create a gmail account.  They may not know how to use computers, but you can still leave emails for them, and if they need to check that email, there are many drop in centers that can help them do that.  Connecting your clients to technology is a win for them.

3) Support your coworkers.  Half of the work you do will depend on whether you can pull your team together on a case.  If you feel that some of your coworkers stigmatize your clients, all the more reason to connect with them, to understand why they feel the way they do.  Do not operate in a vacuum, it sucks.

4) Be in a service mindset.  I openly tell my clients that I am "at their service." I am paid to do what I do.  I may believe strongly in the cause of homelessness, I may have concern for homeless people, but at the end of the day, I am EMPLOYED by homeless people, and I do it their way.  If you work at a shelter, pretend you work at a five star hotel for a day, and see what the difference is, you'll be surprised at the outcome.

5) Understand that there are cultural components to this.  You're not making hamburgers, you are ending homelessness, and some people have been out there for decades.  This means there are rules that they live by in order to function.  Don't confuse these "street rules" with the individual values of the people you work with, they use this conduct code to function, not to make the world a better place.  For example, there is a fundamental "no ratting" rule that is broadly applied.  This rules does NOT apply when children are at risk, or when lives are in danger.  Expect that your client will not "rat out" his or her peers about drug use, but may come to you if there is an overdose, or if a child is at risk.  The cultural rules of the street are complex, vibrant, and should be learned by anybody who wants to help.

6) See yourself in your client.  This does not mean you say something like "I can relate to your homelessness, I had a bad camping trip last week and blah blah" This means you quietly look at what this person is going through and realize that it could be you, that you are one paycheque away from the stigma, isolation, and suffering of homelessness.  Count your blessings, look past their frustration and seemingly counter-productive behaviours and see yourself-- there you are.

7) Don't for a SECOND believe that a homeless person chooses to suffer.  Yes, they may have made a choice that impacted their housing, got them kicked out of the shelter, or made their health conditions worse, but please realize that every single decision they make is made for a damn good reason.  Your job is to help them find that reason, and connect with it on a new level.

8) Don't "should" on your client.  Don't have an idea about what they should be doing.  Yes, if they fill out that application for addictions treatment, it would seem to be a good choice.  What you don't realize is that they were raped repeatedly by a school counsellor, and going to treatment will trigger all that underlying trauma.  Clients know exactly what they need, and they know WHEN they need it.  Don't add another critical voice to the millions of critical voices that homeless people face every day.  Stop "shoulding" on your clients.

9) Know your resources!  If you can't come up with the names of all the foodbanks and drop-in centres within walking distance of your location before you finish reading this sentence, you have a lot of work to do.  I created a mind map of local resources: consider making one for your community.  You will learn a lot in the process.

10) Always realize that this new client is completely different from every client you have formerly worked with.  Don't fall into the trap of thinking that all homeless people are the same, or that they can be divided into broad groups.  If you have a new person in front of you, realize that this is a new person in front of you.  Be human.  Find out who they are by asking them.

11) Inspire people.  Find out what makes them tick.  Perhaps they used to play music, or perhaps they have a kid somewhere.  Maybe they haven't talked to a long lost sister for years, or they have a hobby that they haven't engaged in since becoming homeless.  If you inspire your client, they will do all the work for you, because they will want to get housed just to follow their passion.  Think about it, the reasons YOU stay housed are related to your dreams.  If you had no dreams, no hopes, and no goals, why would you keep paying rent or mortage fees?  Humans used to be nomadic, they only stopped because the things they wanted were attainable if they planted their feet in settlements.  People who have been homeless for a long time haven't lost hope, they have just buried it inside somewhere, waiting for someone like you to help them find it again.

There are more ways to help homeless people, of course.  This topic is endless and deep, but I wanted to give a quick summary of the most helpful attitudes and tools I use every day.  I hope they help you, please feel free to share them where you can.