With contributions from Kym Hines, Terrie Meehan, and Emily Paradis, on behalf of the Lived Experience Advisory Council.

Today—as all eyes turn toward the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Housing Ministers’ meeting and the Super Intent City court decision in Victoria, BC—a network of lived experience leaders from across the country is calling for the leadership and inclusion of poor and homeless people in all efforts to end homelessness in Canada.

Determined to claim space for voices of lived experience in the upcoming National Housing Strategy (NHS) consultations, the Lived Experience Advisory Council is today launching Nothing About Us Without Us: Seven principles for leadership and inclusion of people with lived experience of homelessness.

We believe it is critical that the NHS consultations include meaningful input and direction from diverse people facing homelessness, because the usual decision makers are not living our realities. Researchers, politicians, and service providers may be coming from good intentions, but most lack first-hand knowledge of what it is like to have insecure housing. In order to be effective, the NHS must be inclusive to and led by those directly affected by poverty and homelessness, including Indigenous people, women, families, single men, survivors of violence, people with disabilities, people who have been criminalized, and illicit drug users.

Super Intent City (SIC)—the autonomous homeless community that has been thriving in Victoria since last spring—is an amazing example of leadership by people facing homelessness. The success of SIC demonstrates that, like anyone else, homeless people need and want community, choices, and the freedom to access supports that respect their rights and dignity.  The input of lived experts will strengthen Canada’s long-awaited National Housing Strategy with effective, outside-the-box solutions, such as micro-housing villages, for people who can’t afford the housing market to set up their own self-governing, healthy communities.

LEAC members know from experience that inclusion and leadership of people facing homelessness can contribute to world-changing solutions. We are each involved in initiatives in our own communities that have created meaningful, lasting change through the engagement of people directly affected by homelessness, poverty, and violence. These include Ottawa’s Alliance to End Homelessness; Waterloo’s STEP Home Participant Advisory Group; Winnipeg’s Lived Experience Circle; the Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry; Vancouver’s Carnegie Community Action Project and the Committee to End Homelessness in Victoria. We have pushed for change through social media campaigns, music, blogging, court challenges, United Nations reports, and national advocacy organizations.

We first brought our web of networks together in 2014, at the National Conference to End Homelessness in Vancouver, B.C. The Conference included a myriad of lived experience folks, all there to advocate for grassroots voices to be heard at a national setting. The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH) had awarded 20 scholarships to Lived Experience advocates, panelists, and workshop facilitators from across the country, and 20 more to local lived experts, to be included at every level of input during the conference.

This was not my first time being invited to attend a conference or meeting as an expert of lived experience.  Often throughout my life as a single Inuk parent, I have been invited to speak at events and share my story to policy makers and folks who generally don't get to hear much about what happens at ground level with the programs they design to help the impoverished and marginalized populations of this country.  I've always taken this responsibility very seriously and I was delighted to know that this CAEH National Conference valued lived experience input enough to make space and accommodations for more than just a handful.  We were represented at this conference by many well deserving and successful members of lived experience from across the country, all willing to tell their personal story to help with the processes of inclusivity at policy making levels.

On the way to the conference, I and other delegates received a heads up from some front line folks that there would be a protest happening at the Wall Centre—the prestigious hotel complex hosting the conference that year—in which homeless folks from Downtown Eastside and all over the Vancouver area would organize and protest the conference.  Many of us joined the protest, marching and wheeling in solidarity with the protestors and homeless of Vancouver. We were defying protocol and polite etiquette, in protesting the very meeting that we had been invited, and paid for, to attend.

You can imagine the tension created in those hours of protest. It was surreal. Indigenous land rights activist Audrey Siegl was among the organizers of the protest and we quickly met with her and let her know that we were lived experience folks standing in solidarity with the homeless. We walked in the rain as they chanted and we chanted with them.  A few lived experience folks marched on either side of the group through the streets of Vancouver, and when we caught each other’s attention, we stared in a way that acknowledged that we understood why we were here.

This was not a stance in defiance of the CAEH, but a civil action through which we could assist in creating some sense of inclusion and solidarity. We wanted to allow the people who were making the decisions to see first hand the people that they were representing and aimed to help. We intended to show that we would stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who were now going through the actual lived experience, the school of hard knocks. We knew that we could be connectors, bringing activists and managers together to challenge homelessness

And so we marched. We marched and wheeled to the Wall Centre where we were met with security guards locking us out of the hotel. We were met by lineups of police at the opening of the hotel doors. It was a disheartening process to watch, and very hard to navigate through, but we all did it, civilly, peacefully, and respectfully.  The attendees of the conference hadn't seen anything like this before: participants in the event that was the target of the protest actually standing alongside and in agreement with the people protesting, who had some very valid input and direction to give to the professionals filling the seats in the workshops and speaking events. This was a momentous time, and the energy filling the air that evening and for the rest of the conference was buzzing with new possibilities.

The next morning, the allies in lived experience who joined the protest would unite and gather in a meeting room provided by the conference to talk about our experiences.  That conversation was the beginning of the Lived Experience Advisory Council, a dynamic group of amazing advocates and voices from across the country, coast to coast to coast, who have created a constant ally-activist dialogue to ensure that grassroots voices are included and have full participation in processes that implement change in ending homelessness across Canada.  We are a great intersectional voice with combined years and years of professional, academic and lived experience knowledge, and we pull together the threads of vibrant networks and visionary projects from our local organizing across the country. We know that sometimes, we need to step outside protocol and etiquette to ensure all voices are heard.

We left Vancouver determined to continue working together. In spite of distance, lack of access to technology, precarious housing, poverty, and the complications and crises that beset our daily lives, we stayed connected.  In 2015, thanks to funding from CAEH and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, we would find our way to the National Conference on Ending Homelessness in Montréal where we presented several workshops: a session on autonomous housing options with Take Back the Land Movement leader Rob Robinson; an activist-ally dialogue in which we connected with lived experience activists and professional allies from across Canada; and a session focused on the Nothing About Us Without Us principles that are being published today. 

Out of our experiences as invited guests to CAEH conferences and many other such meetings, we have also created a Checklist for Planning Inclusive and Accessible Events, to alert event organizers to the big questions and little details that make the difference for us and members of our communities.

These documents provide the blueprint for meaningful engagement of people with lived experience in the National Housing Strategy consultations. The consultations must include lived experts at the table at every stage, and the NHS must incorporate mechanisms for ongoing participation of people facing poverty and homelessness at every level: in service delivery, program planning, policy making, and monitoring and evaluation of the Strategy. 

Homelessness and poverty are not just about inadequate housing and incomes. More fundamentally, they are about exclusion. Members of our communities have been silenced, disregarded, and shut out for too long. It is only by opening the doors to equal participation by all that we can finally put an end to homelessness in Canada.