Why We Gather

The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH) recently held their annual conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Subsequent to the conference, this article by Susan Huebert was published by the CBC. As it contains many of the tropes commonly encountered by those who work in health and social services, I thought it worth the time to correct some misconceptions. So, here are 10 things to consider about why and how people gather for a conference on homelessness:

1. Knowledge Exchange is Crucial

The very title of the article, “More than talk needed”, displays a common prejudice we encounter in social services, that somehow gathering to share how to enhance the work is inferior to or takes away from doing the work itself. This is based on the false assumptions that information exchange and direct action are not complimentary, and that doing the work without exchanging knowledge is a better use of time. However, we know that in all sectors people gather for conferences, colloquiums, workshops, and all other forms of knowledge exchange. This is because, in spite of technological advances, there is still immense value in gathering together to talk, learn, listen, debate, and commiserate. Indeed, this type of knowledge exchange pays off several-fold in all of us working better to end homelessness. Conversely, working independently in our communities to end homelessness without any knowledge of best practices would be the true waste of time and money.

2. Fusion policy problems need complex and multi-sector solutions

The author suggests that perhaps money could be saved on the event if less speakers were involved. The first thing to note is that the vast majority of speakers present were not paid, but rather paying to participate, so having less of these speakers would actually increase the cost of such an event. Secondly, decreasing the speakers is counter to the first point regarding the value of knowledge exchange. Limiting the discussion to just a few speakers would limit the breadth and depth of what was learned. Importantly, we know that homelessness is a fusion policy issue, meaning that policies across many sectors contribute to people becoming homeless and struggling to exit homelessness. Therefore, we need many, many people involved in coordinating solutions that are upstream, policy-based, and targeted to root, systemic causes.

3. Voices of lived experience are present and clear

The author alludes to the presence of individuals with lived experience at the conference, but then suggests that participants should listen to them, as if these voices were not present and clear at the conference. This suggestion leads me to wonder just how much of the conference the author attended, as the voice of lived experience was the predominant voice, whether from keynote presentations, from the entire program stream focused on lived experiences, or from the lived experience integrated in other population-specific program streams. If you were at the conference and didn’t hear these voices, then you certainly weren’t listening. There is also naievity in focusing on just the 50 individuals who participated through lived experience sponsorships, as so many others at the conference, at all levels of service delivery, policy-making, and research, bring their own lived experiences as the root of their passion for this sector.

4. Space is made for diverse voices of lived experience

Not only does the author down-play the strong engagement of persons with lived experiences, they make no mention of the breadth of diversity of lived experience present and represented at the conference. CAEH has been incredibly responsive for calls to include diversity of experiences based on social locations, such as youth, women, those identifying as LGBTQ2S, Indigenous peoples, and others. To be honest, these calls have often been blunt and confrontational, yet CAEH has always responded graciously by creating space for all voices. This includes seats on the board, advisory committees, program streams, and other ways that ingrain diversity into the conversation in real versus tokenistic ways. CAEH needs to be commended for this work.

5. The voice of lived experience is more than just story-telling

While the author is perhaps calling for what she believes is a better way to meet the needs of those experiencing homelessness, her conceptualizations actually do a disservice to these individuals. In considering the role of persons with lived experience in the conference, she states that they are “enhancing the participants’ learning with first-hand experience of living without a home of their own.” This regretfully downplays the true role of individuals with lived experiences in the conference who did far more than story-telling (although they did that as well), but were integrated in service planning, policy debates, best practice considerations, and so much more in terms of strategic discussions to end homelessness. Thinking of lived experience as only being useful as anecdotes is disturbingly pejorative.

6. Participants’ needs must be met

Critiquing the event itself, the author provides a decidedly unhelpful suggestion of simpler meals. It should be noted that meals were far from extravagant, but mostly your regular meat/potatoes/vegtable fare with coffee and water. Paring this down would mean that you would have 1,050 conference delegates receiving less than satisfactory nutrition. This would have the adverse effect of less delegates attending in future years (see point #2), and the time-wasting effect of delegates leaving the venue to make a purchase to complete their meal (see point #1). More importantly, those with lived experience, for whom the author purports to advocate, would be the most negatively impacted by providing incomplete nutrition for a 3-day event. As meal costs are factored into the conference registration fees, the scale of participation is a good indicator that CAEH has struck the correct balance between keeping costs down while meeting participants’ basic needs sufficiently.

7. There are a lot of participants, and there needs to be

In addition to less food, the author recommends a less formal venue. While this sounds good in theory, a simple question to the organizers would have provided the very simple answer: Almost all cities in Canada have only a single venue that can accommodate a conference of 1000+ delegates. Building on points #1 and #2, it is important that we have broad representation at such conferences, and this means that the choice of venue is incredibly limited.

8. Of course we feel the contrast between our lives and the lives of those we serve

One of the most infuriating claims made by the author is that in paring things down, “some of the attendees might have become aware of the contrast between the comfortable conditions and good food at the venue and the needy community that was just outside the doors of the convention centre.” This is clearly an author who does not work in the sector. If she did, she knows that daily, in every way, every person who works front-line or beyond feels deep in their soul the contrast between their own life and the lives of those they serve. This disparity haunts us. This disparity causes us to grieve. This disparity motivates us. This disparity leads us to gather together to exchange knowledge on how we can permanently end this human rights abuse of lack of shelter. How dare she suggest that we don’t feel the sorrow of inequities.

9. This struggle was thoroughly recognized

To add insult to injury she states: “Some formal recognition of the struggling people nearby would have given an added sense of purpose to the gathering.” She wasn’t listening. This very recognition grounded the gathering, from the opening, to the perpetual fire, to the sleep out, to the memorial event for lives lost, to the voices of lived experience, to the calls to action. No conference is more centred on the urgency of the need, the reality of the struggle, and the desperation of our purpose than the CAEH conference.

10. People are paying for the conference, not direct services

I leave this point to last because it’s more of a technical one and less important I think than the philosophical ones preceding it, but worth mentioning none-the-less. One of her conclusions is that in paring down the conference, money could instead go to front-line services. This, however, is not how conferences work. Rather, they are budgeted to meet the needs of the conference, so if you pare it down then you need to decrease the cost, or no one will attend. The revenue side of a conference is not pre-set, but rather it reflects the number of participants who register. Should a conference create a surplus, this money supports the mission of the host organization. If the mission is strategy/training/planning/advocacy versus front-line service, and an individual would prefer to support front-line service, then they can choose to do so themselves. Suggesting that all money in the sector should only ever be spent on front-line services brings us right back full-circle to point #1.