Involving People Experiencing Homelessness in Decision-Making

It is a perennial challenge within services who work with people experiencing homelessness: How do we ensure that the service users themselves have a say in the running of our service?  Many different models have been used, from having users on boards, to having advisory groups, to just crossing-fingers and hoping people participate.  Either way, there is a sense of ‘nothing for us, without us’ as being ideal.

The London Homeless Coalition serves as an information sharing body for homeless services in London, Ontario.  For the past number of years, there has been a striking lack of people with lived experiences of homelessness serving on the coalition.  This as not so surprising however, as experience shows us that within the ‘us/them’ dichotomy, unless we are strategic in thinking about inclusion, it will not happen.  The way we tend to do business simply fails to fit the reality of the lives of most people experiencing homelessness.  So, at recent Coalition meetings there has been discussion as to how to integrate more street-level voices.

Suggestions I had an issue with included:

  1. Inviting people every month to come and tell their stories.  This smacks of exploitation.
  2. Maybe we just need a different location for the meetings.  However, if people value them, and we are already meeting downtown, it’s not likely the location that is of issue.
  3. Perhaps we need to provide food and bus tickets, or other incentives.  Although this would likely work, bribing people is not a great way to build meaningful participation.
  4. We need to find permanent members to commit to the coalition.  Although this would be nice, it’s pretty ‘pie in the sky’.
So, what was my suggestion?  I believe that to build in user participation, short of going back and starting from scratch with only building user-led coalitions, we need to make the experience of coalition meetings meaningful for people.  Therefore, I suggested that we use personal relationships, to invite homeless people we know, to specific meetings, to speak to specific agenda items.  To me this is the most honest way to make their feedback relevant, by focusing on specific agenda items, and is most pragmatic in not requiring people to participate in the whole meeting if they don’t want to.

3 thoughts on “Involving People Experiencing Homelessness in Decision-Making

  1. I know a couple of people who have been working through these things for a number of years in a very involved way. One now chairs the board of the “Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council” which is a group strictly composed of people who live in Vancouver’s DTES and it is actively working to support the community there (resist gentrification, push for tenant-controlled social housing, etc.). They have turned into a pretty impressive force (so much so that the city has more than once tried to co-opt my friend and incorporate him into their processes). The other friend is currently working through how to create something like a leadership school for homeless and street-involved people in order to assist them to become more active leaders in their own communities. Both fellows are pretty busy, but if you wanted me to put you in touch with them, I think they could offer you a lot of good advice.

    Glad to see that you all are working through this. I think that it’s a crucial issue.

  2. I like that you’re asking this question, too. I would also ask people experiencing homelessness how they would like to be included. And be prepared for a variety of answers.


  3. Participation does present a challenge for groups working in the sector.
    However without it, we miss out on a vital input in the sector.
    The optional presenting/participating approach is a good option.

    As we are able to house more men and women this informal, no pressure approach seems a good way to move forward.

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