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?